‘Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man’ is a Jesuit maxim attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. He probably never said it, or if he did, he almost certainly said: ‘Give me the boy for the first seven years and I will show you the man’. The quote is also attributed to Aristotle, but in a sense the source doesn’t matter, for by its attribution to both one of the greatest spiritual minds and one of the greatest philosophical thinkers ever to have existed, it moves beyond cultural constructivism to transcendent truth: the workings of the mind were designed to be subject to time and space.
And into that time and space comes children’s education, by which process their moral, cultural and religious values are inculcated and their politics are moulded – from the history lesson which scorns the ethics of empire to the singing of ‘I vow to thee my country’ in the daily act of collective worship, schools are places where political perspectives become truths and religious exposure becomes morality. There is, of course, much debate concerning the proper aims of education and the right balance (should such a thing exist) between the prescriptive statutes of governments and the freedoms of parents and particular religious groups, but in a liberal democracy there must be the means to impart the knowledge of citizenship which is deemed necessary to sustain that liberal democracy, or the state ceases generation-by-generation to be either liberal or democratic.
Relationship and Sex Education (formerly Sex and Relationship Education) is one of those subjects which straddles the government-parent-religion tensions of responsibility and provision. For some, it is the task of parents to teach sexual morality and reify good relationship; for others, it is the joint responsibility of parents and religious communities, with a civic minimum imparting the essential facts of biology and social reality. For others still, mindful of parental delinquency and religious prejudice in this regard, it is fundamentally a function of the state to ensure that all children are taught the knowledge and life skills they will need to develop healthy relationships and stay safe while having sex.
The question and tension which then arises is related to age-appropriateness: at what point does the scientific naming of private body parts or discussion about where babies come from become consideration of emotional and physical changes; and then at what point those changes become discussions about different kinds of families or the differences between boys and girls; and then at what point those differences become discussions about engaging in sex, contraception or condoms, homosexuality and transgender people. And what about abortion? And then there is sexual experimentation, orgasms, group sexual experiences, oral sex, masturbation…
Would it surprise you to know that discussions about transgender are deemed appropriate for eight-year-olds?
One state primary school in Birmingham, where the children are predominantly Muslim, introduced RSE lessons to promote LGBT equality. The Guardian reported in January that the programme includes “the welcoming of people of any race, colour or religion and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender”. There is, of course, nothing wrong with welcoming people, but what is the age-appropriate way of explaining lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to a four-year-old? What are books entitled ‘Mommy, Mama and Me‘ or ‘King & King‘ designed to inculcate about the morality of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages? One parent Fatima Shah is quoted: “Children are being told it’s OK to be gay, yet 98% of children at this school are Muslim. It’s a Muslim community. [Mr Moffat (assistant headteacher)] said all parents are on board with it, but the reality is, no parents are on board with it.” She added: “We have nothing against Mr Moffat – we are as British as they come. We respect the British values… but the problem is, he is not respecting our ethos as a community. We don’t send our children to school to learn about LGBT. We send them to school to learn maths, science and English.”
Andrew Moffat, who is gay and was appointed MBE in 2017 for services to education, responded: “I’m just teaching children from an early age that there are different families out there and, let’s not forget, that in some schools there are children with two mums, so I see it that they’re not being taught anything. All they’re seeing is their family is being accepted. We want all children in Birmingham to know that their family is normal; that their family is accepted and welcomed in schools.”
Last week Mr Moffat gave in, and subjugated the ethos of his school to the religious ethos of the majority Muslim parents: all LGBT lessons have been stopped. He did this because hundreds of those parents decided to withdraw their children from the lessons, which is their legal right. But what if RSE were to become mandatory, as the Government intends? What option would parents then have if they felt their children were being taught matters of sex and sexuality which they deemed to be age-inappropriate? “We are not a bunch of homophobic mothers,” Fatima Shah said. “We just feel that some of these lessons are inappropriate. Some of the themes being discussed are very adult and complex and the children are getting confused. They need to be allowed to be children rather than having to constantly think about equalities and rights.”
The themes being discussed are complex for adults, too, because it matters of sexuality and gender it isn’t at all clear where nature end and nurture begins. And that is the essence of the grievance these Muslim parents have: they feel their children are not simply being education in the sociological fact of homosexuality and transgender, but inculcated – or ‘indoctrinated’, as one parent put it – into the moral virtue of such expressions of identity. Now, you may believe that homosexuality is as innate as heterosexuality, and transgender is simply another increment on the spectrum of human diversity, but for others the causal debate is more nuanced, not least because there is conflicting evidence from eminent scientists and psychologists on both sides of the divide. While some favour the ‘nature’ explanation based on biology or genetics, others incline to the ‘nurture’ theory, based on the psychological reaction to upbringing and environment, which obviously includes education.
The Bible’s understanding of biology (and, indeed, that of the Qur’an) is a world apart from modern studies, and theologians are as divided as scientists. Some insist that cultural factors contribute in psycho-sexual development, embracing Freudian psychological theory, for example, which asserts that homosexual orientation is a consequence of the failure to identify with the same-sex parent; that a physical or emotional distance between the child and the same-sex parent results in a failure to be able to identify with one’s own sex. This results in a same-sex deficit, which the homosexual is unconsciously trying to repair by creating emotional and sexual relationships with people of the same sex. It is not so much a moral degeneracy but an emotional immaturity, and one therefore capable of being healed through therapy.
This is the view of the great majority of Muslims, and also of a great many Christians and Jews. The cause of homosexual orientation being somehow a combination of both nature and nurture – a psychogenetic fusion – would therefore be susceptible to educational inculcation. If the ethos of a school is toward ‘tolerance’ of homosexuality and transgender as ‘natural’, and that ethos is reified by teachers who impart notions of equal validity and moral parity, then what the Bible or Qur’an happen to say becomes irrelevant: British values trump God’s created order. If a child feels a bit gender-neutral or trans one day, why not explore androgyny further? Why not try living as the opposite sex for a while? It might be fun. It certainly makes you a bit more interesting and gets you noticed.
There is no easy solution to this: the government-parent-religion tensions will persist in state education until one party asserts its dominance – which appears to be imminent – at which point the other parties will respond or react. While reason demands the serious critical consideration of scientific studies, and certainly those which are concerned with the possibility that same-sex preference and transgender may be genetically programmed, not all innate tendencies in children are either good or desirable. But that is too nuanced a debate in this febrile atmosphere. It is to be noted that in the hundreds of parents who have withdrawn their children from LGBT lessons in this school, sporting their banners declaring ‘Education not Indoctrination’, ‘My Child My Right’ and ‘Say No to sexualisation of children’, they have not been condemned as homophobes or bigots by LGBT lobby groups. If these had been Christian parents, however, no doubt Amanda Spielman would have issued an instant press release, and Peter Tatchell would have been there in a flash.