By Allen Wesson

‘No Outsiders’ – An Argument Against Religious Schools

The ‘No Outsiders’ programme is an education initiative aiming at teaching The Equality Act to primary school pupils. Andrew Moffat, a teacher at Parkfield Community School, in Birmingham, introduced the No Outsiders scheme in 2015 in an effort to educate students on LGBT rights, diversity, and equality. Throughout March 2019, members of various conservative religious groups protested against the LGBTQ-inclusive programme, including Muslim and Christian communities. Around 600 children were withdrawn from the school by concerned parents condemning what they perceived as propaganda and brainwashing conducted in direct opposition to their religious beliefs. On March 13th, the school released a statement confirming that the ‘No Outsiders’ Programme had been suspended until further notice.

I am particularly upset and distressed by this, as my personal belief is in the acceptance of all. Mr Moffat was forced to resign from his position as assistant head at Birmingham’s Chilwell Croft Academy over his sexuality in 2014, leading me to very much rally to the cause he tried so hard to defend.

98% of the school’s enrolment is Muslim, and the Muslim community has been the most outspoken about the programme. This is just as worrying to me as the excessive influence Catholic Schools have over young students, or even the forced singing of Christian hymns in public schools. What we see here is nothing new, it just happens to fall into a topic which gets plenty of media attention. But we do need to ask: what sort of example is being set? There is a serious discussion to be had about labelling the lifestyle of others as wrong.

When you give a single stakeholder group a high amount of power in an educational institution, you see that institution diverge away from a forum of discussion toward a hierarchy of dictation. People are entitled to believe what they wish, but as with all beliefs they must be challenged. We wonder why we have high levels of intolerance in our society, whether that be homophobia, Islamophobia or any other agenda based on hatred. It is plainly obvious to me that segregated schooling is part of the issue.

I was very involved at my secondary school, spending upwards of ten hours a day on site. This was a chance to be exposed to different points of view and have my own core beliefs  challenged and reviewed by my interactions with others; whether that be staff or students. Education is an opportunity afforded to us to shape ourselves into who we want to be. We can weigh up what we see and interpret things for ourselves, without being indoctrinated by any way of thinking – whether that be the views of our parents, teachers or friends. It allows individuals to remove themselves from their family dynamic in the hope that they will discover new things about themselves. And you simply cannot do this with an overarching religious narrative claiming not just home life and personal belief systems, but also permeating all the structures surrounding you.

It’s therefore not too far-fetched to speculate that Parkfield Community School – as well as other schools across the UK which had adopted the No Outsiders programme only to scrap it later – will produce a high proportion of intolerant young adults whose beliefs remained undisputed. Mr Moffat tried to challenge norms and was crowded out by parents’ deep-rooted homophobia. If that school had a less prominent Muslim influence,  then maybe belief systems would be better scrutinised and meaningful change would occur. The same would be true if the influence was Catholic of course, but the point is that young people should be able to come to certain conclusions regarding values and lifestyles on their own.

From this stems my main argument, and something I have advocated for since I have grasped a basic understanding of what education means to the people who are lucky enough to have it: schooling should segregate students by their performance at school and nothing else. By doing this, you are able to give children an environment where social differences are left at the door, where pupils can be intellectually stimulated through exposure to new ideas and thought processes. That approach to education would give students a better understanding of the modern world in which we live. I am therefore completely against religious schooling of any sort, bearing in mind this comes from an agnostic and not an atheist. Young people need to understand that community doesn’t mean homogeneity, which it often does when affiliated with a religious school.

Community to me means differences, disputes and falling out. It means I can learn about you and you about me. A community is a promise to learn something about ourselves by how we treat the views of others – and we have no experience of that at a young age if we are taught we should all believe the same thing.

So whether it be Muslim Free Schools, academies with overwhelming majorities of one religious community, Catholic schools or any others, we must consider the need to ensure education’s impartiality and its removal from religion. Sometimes this isn’t always possible, as demonstrated by the presence of closely-knit Muslim communities living with little to ‘No Outsiders’. But we must ask ourselves why this is happening – and whether these segregated communities are perpetuated through unmixed schooling. It is no secret that the UK does a poor job of integrating and accepting those from other cultures, something which is so systemic there are British citizens belonging to minority groups that do not feel British at all.

But how can they, when their own school cannot teach fundamental British values of inclusivity and equality without backlash?

Allen Wesson is a first year politics and economics student at the University of Surrey.

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