Gove urged to clarify position on anti-gay texts in schools

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Michael Gove’s reported response to an enquiry about homophobic leaflets being shown to schoolchildren in Lancashire has prompted confusion over when pupils can legally be shown anti-gay texts.

The Education Secretary’s reply to a query about anti-gay texts in schools has led to a call to clarify when and why students can be handed such material during their education.

The question arose because Trade Union Congress’s general secretary Brendan Barber wrote to Gove questioning why pupils at Roman Catholic schools had been given what appeared to be a homophobic text written by an American preacher.

The Observer reported that “Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be” suggested a young boy’s gay attractions may “stem from an unhealthy relationship with his father, an inability to relate to other guys, or even sexual abuse”.

In his letter to Gove, Barber wrote that the Equality Act 2010 meant: “Schools now have a legal duty to challenge all forms of prejudice. Such literature undermines this completely.”

In an extract of his reply published by the paper, Gove said: “The education provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum.

“Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.”

Yesterday, a Department for Education spokesman could only say: “Any school engaging in the promotion of homophobic material would be acting unlawfully.” understands that under current laws, such material can be handed out to educate pupils about different views, but not to promote such views or to discriminate against any students on the grounds of sexuality.

Adam Wagner, barrister and founding editor of the UK Human Rights Blog said that under the Equality Act: “A school is permitted to teach about whatever subject it likes, so as not to inhibit it from teaching about a wide range of issues, including, it would seem, controversial views about homosexuality.

“However, they have to be very careful indeed to balance material so that gay students are not subjected to discrimination.

“It may be that the booklet was used by the Lancashire schools in a sensitive way, perhaps as part of a careful discussion about religious attitudes to homosexuality.

“These attitudes may be controversial, but also cannot simply be airbrushed away, particularly at a Roman Catholic, or for that matter Orthodox Jewish, school. Indeed, that was the explanation given by the Orthodox Jewish JFS school in a recent case involving mention of a ‘gay cure’ institute in a religious studies lesson.”

The Orthodox Jewish school JFS found itself at the centre of controversy in January after a series of slides it used in a classroom debate on homosexuality included one with the logo of JONAH, a ‘gay cure’ group founded by Orthodox Jews in the US.

Tony Fenwick, co-chair of Schools Out which has campaigned for LGBT equality in schools since 1974, said he had written to Mr Gove asking for an explanation of the comments.

On the published extract of Gove’s response, Mr Fenwick said: “This quote is extraordinary. The Equality Act pushes us to the forefront in Europe and the world on equalities legislation, but Gove’s statement seems to say that schools can escape all that and discriminate against LGBT people through the curriculum.

“I am willing to assume he has been misquoted or misunderstood. Otherwise lesbians, gays, bisexual and trans people are being taken back to the dark days of Thatcherism and Section 28. For the sake of our communities and our children, we need clarification”.

Today, James Asser, Co-Chair of LGBT Labour commented: “Michael Gove has demonstrated a disappointing failure of leadership in protecting our schoolchildren from bigoted propaganda being openly distributed in schools.

“The Government is failing in its duty to condemn discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, contributing to what can prove a difficult and sensitive period in a young LGBT person’s life.

“There are proven and obvious links between the prevalence of homophobia in our schools and young LGBT people’s experience of bullying and discrimination. Gove’s failure comes after slashing statutory guidance on bullying in schools and removing explicit reference to homophobia or transphobia.

“It’s time for Michael Gove to cut the rhetoric and stand up for equality in our nation’s schools.”