Thursday 26 April 2012

And now for something completely different...

Some of Matron's readers may remember that she deviated from the path of privacy (self-)righteousness a few weeks ago, when she ranted about the Catholic bishops' open letter on gay marriage which had to be read out in churches all over the land. Alhough that blog post is by now one of her most visited, Matron was fully intending to leave it at that until this morning when she woke up to the news that the Catholic church apparently didn't stop there. Instead, it has now apparently written to every state-funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign their petition against gay marriage. At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, this put Matron in mind of Martin Niemoeller's famous poem "First they came.." which charters the way in which the Nazis made progress in their quest to silence dissent group by vulnerable group.

Now, it may be obvious by now that Matron is not herself a "person of faith", that, indeed, she considers much of conventional religious teaching to be some kind of "intellectual curare" designed to paralyse an individual's power to think for themselves and to critically analyse a given situation. As such, she has long-held and cherished believes about the separation of churches and the state (yes, please!), the role churches should take in the education of young, impressionable minds (none!) and the moral justification for the state-funding of so-called "faith schools" (there isn't one).

The discussion of the issue of funding has, of course, become particular relevant since current Education secretary Michael Gove embarked on his despicable scheme of turning as many schools as possible into privately run Academies, as this has given faith groups of any denomination an easy way to buy themselves into the hearts and minds of the nation's children. One of the unintended (?) consequences of this development is likely to be the increased exposure of children to the various churches' attitude towards homosexuality or, to use the more PC term, LGB, as is exemplified by this morning's news.

By some "happy" coincidence, Matron has just finished reading a very interesting paper which Mrs Matron - a state-funded educator and Catholic school survivor herself - has recently submitted as part of research she is conducting on social justice and sexual equalities in schools. In light of current events, some of its findings probably deserve a slightly wider distribution if we want to understand the damage that the exposure to the Churches' teachings in this area can do to young people.

  1. Before we get to that, it must first be noted that ever since the sad demise of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 which prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality", the topic of homosexuality in a school environment is largely determined by the rules governing sex education. In particular, section 403 (1) of the Education Act 1996 provides that any kind of sex education must encourage pupils to have due regard to "moral considerations and the value of family life". Section 403(1A) then states that the Secretary of State must issue guidance on the matter and that that guidance must make sure, among other things, that pupils are protected "from teaching and materials which are "inappropriate having regard to their religious and cultural background". The practical result of this can be seen in classrooms all over the country where teachers are finding it difficult to even mention the possibility of LGB lives for fear that some rabid parent may rant them out to the head teacher as exposing the little dear to culturally and religiously inappropriate propaganda.
  2. Ignoring for the moment the ludicrousness of the notion that homosexuality is something that would benefit from a sleek advertising campaign (as people said in the context of the section 28 debate, "If we could turn people gay, don't you think there'd be more of us?"), this has dire consequences for children that are actually LGB themselves or that are at least wondering about whether or not them may be. Studies have found that pupils identifying as LGB are more likely to experience feelings of depression and suicide by several orders of magnitude. Rather than this being "innate' to the misfortune of identifying as LGB - as the churches would have us believe - research has shown quite clearly that these feelings are much less likely to developed where LGB pupils are allowed to operate in an open and supportive environment.
  3. At the same time, the complete and utter lack of positive LGB role models in schools and the refusal of schools to depict LGB as a valid identity leads to feelings of isolation and makes it more difficult for LGB students to come to terms with their own sexuality. According to a study supported by Stonewall, seven in ten pupils say that this affects their school work and 60% report that there is no adult in their lives in whom they feel comfortable confiding about their sexuality.
  4. This atmosphere of ignorance, neglect and barely disguised intolerance also leads to increased incidences of homophobic bullying. Again, the Stonewall study found that 65% of LGB students has experienced homophobic bullying - ranging from name-calling to physical assault - rising to 75% in faith schools. Students report that even where they report the bullying to teachers and other educators, in many cases nothing is done. Indeed, teachers are often the perpetrators when it comes to making homophobic remarks about their pupils with another study finding that 43% of secondary school teachers have overheard homophobic comments being made by colleagues and 30% describing how colleagues in their school have themselves been responsible for homophobic bullying.
  5. Against this backdrop consider Michael Gove's recent announcement that the Equality Act does not extend to schools and that faith schools therefore have a right to distribute what can only be described as homophobic material.
As anyone who has ever attended or visited a school will know, what schools and teachers do matters. The behaviour they expect from you, the values they try to install in you, matter. They have a much bigger chance to take hold precisely for the fact that not only are you exposed to them for seven hours every day during a period of your life when you are trying and learning to make sense of the world, people, society, yourself and what it all means; they also carry with them the authority of being handed down "by those who know" and who have - albeit a limited amount of - power over you.

Schools also have unprecedented access to children that is only matched by the access that parents themselves have. If schools are allowed to create an environment where one type of sexuality is understood as unacceptable, less acceptable or even less deserving of the rights that those with a different sexuality expect as a matter of course, it is bound to have an impact not only on the attitudes of the majority group but on the self-image and self-esteem of those trying to develop their own identity within the minority group.

The original impetus for Mrs Matron's paper was her realisation in her own school environment that sexual orientation is the only "equality factor" that is in open conflict with another, namely "religion". This means that only with regard to sexuality do schools seem to feel duty-bound to consider whether equality of treatment by means of appropriate support of students on all sides of the sexuality divide interferes with other students' religious freedom. It has been said before, but it may need to be said again:

We wouldn't tolerate this type of argument with regard to race and - as the discussions about the treatment of women in Muslim society or around female circumcision show - we at least have trouble tolerating it with regard to gender. We have made great strides in the last couple of decades in examining our attitudes towards cultural relativism and the extend to which this may merely be an excuse for reaffirming existing prejudices in our own society. With so much harm clearly already being done to young people guilty of nothing more than desiring a relationship with someone of their own gender, why can we not work a little bit harder to protect them from "attacks" like this?

Mr Gove, your turn!

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