Debate on anti-gay texts in schools reaches Lords

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The questions about whether and in what way children can be shown anti-gay texts in schools continued with an exchange in the House of Lords yesterday.

Senior Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard queried whether an anti-gay text written by an American Catholic should have been allowed into a school.

Lord Hill, the Conservative Parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, said the government was “extremely clear that material used for the purpose of inciting homophobic bullying would be completely improper”.

He said the UK should not return to a time of banning materials from entering schools but should ensure such materials were used appropriately in teaching children.

Asked by Lord Rennard about material which could encourage homophobic bullying by its content, he continued: “The Government would want to take action; it would fall foul of the Equality Act and various other pieces of legislation.

“The question is whether we should ban all materials, whatever they are, to which any of us individually might take exception.

“The position that was reached in 2010 on the Equality Act seems to me right. It draws a distinction between how children are taught and what goes on in schools – and it is clear that there should not be that kind of behaviour – and the use of different kinds of material from which, used properly, people could conclude that material […] was full of all sorts of errors.”

Labour peer Lord Howarth of Newport added that the UK would no longer “ban books or, indeed, burn them” and it should not return to an “illiberal state of affairs” where access to materials was denied.

In a letter this month to Education Secretary Michael Gove about the ‘Pure Manhood’ booklet which prompted the Lords discussion, Brendan Barber of the TUC wrote that the Equality Act 2010 meant: “Schools now have a legal duty to challenge all forms of prejudice. Such literature undermines this completely.”

Gove was urged to clarify the government’s position on whether material like the booklet, “Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be” was ever permissible in a classroom.

In reports, the Education Secretary was quoted as saying the principles enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 did not extend to the content of a school curriculum.

In the full letter which only emerged later, Gove had gone on to add in the following sentence that “the way the curriculum is taught is covered by the provisions of the Act”.

“If a school conveyed its beliefs in a way that involved haranguing, harassing or berating a gay or lesbian pupil or group of pupils then this would be unacceptable in any circumstances and is likely to constitute unlawful discrimination.”

Gove continues that schools “have discretion in what is taught within PSHE [Personal, Social, Health and Economic] education and how it is taught (while having due regard to the Equality Act).”

But when the full response emerged, Sue Caldwell of Schools Out told “The phrase ‘the way the curriculum is taught’ is open to a wide interpretation. As a teacher, I would find it impossible to separate the way something is taught from the materials used to teach it.

“If you want to teach in a way that does not discriminate then you are careful about the materials you select, you acknowledge the contributions made by diverse sections of society and try to avoid stereotyping. This has been an underlying principle of anti-racist teaching, for example.

“Gove seems to be saying that it is OK to distribute insulting material as long as you don’t ‘harangue, harass or berate’ anyone while you are doing so.”

In the House of Lords yesterday, Baroness Walmsley asked Lord Hill: “In a country where three young men have recently been jailed for distributing leaflets promoting hatred of homosexual people, is it not clear that this document is inappropriate and therefore against the department’s guidance?”

Lord Hill said: “If the material […] were being used to make the point that this kind of view is a minority view, that would seem to be a perfectly proper use to which it could be put.”

In Hansard transcripts, he added: “My understanding is that there is a clear distinction between what is able to be taught in schools and teaching that encouraged homophobic bullying or inappropriate behaviour of any sort, which would clearly fall foul of a range of different pieces of legislation.

“That is clearly wrong and we would deplore it. However, the ban on that kind of behaviour and what is done in lessons does not extend to particular source material.

“For example, there may be people who think that the “Merchant of Venice” as a script, a text or a document encouraged anti-Jewish sentiment. Should that be outlawed? No, it clearly should not. That is the distinction I am seeking to draw between the use to which materials are put and the materials themselves.”