There’s been a huge amount of discussion about a speech I gave last week. I’ve written a little about why I made it, and who I am as a politician.
When the fifty or so parents turned up at my weekly advice surgery a few weeks back, I was genuinely surprised to see them there. It’s unusual to have that many people in one session, even more so for all of them to be there for one reason. But there they were, and in they came, to talk about their thoughts on the Relationship and Sex Education curriculum at the schools their kids attended. These were not parents from Parkfield, which is not in my constituency, but from three schools in my patch.
Yesterday afternoon, just over a month later, the chain of events set in motion by my conversation with those parents reached something of a crescendo online – and on my Twitter feed. Nothing, however, has changed my opinion that, however challenging it may be, we need to be able to have a sensible conversation about how faith and education intersect.
Firstly, some context. As an MP, my position and voting record, on all equalities issues could not be clearer. Both in my politics and throughout my life, I have tried by follow the principles of respect and tolerance; similarly, I have always believed this is reflected in my record and my actions.
And nowhere have I said that RSE should not be taught to kids – because I don’t believe it shouldn’t be. Nowhere have I said that LGBT relationships should not be taught – because that’s not my position. Nowhere have I called for a return to the days of Section 28 – because that law was a dehumanising stain rightly removed by a Labour Government. And nowhere have I backed the terrible homophobic banners and hostile protests at Parkfield school in Birmingham – because they are wrong, defeatist and feed the very prejudices I want to help eradicate. These things are not my views – and are not my politics.
I do, however, have an unshakeable belief that all people deserve the full protection of the law, guarding against discrimination in any form. There is no point legislating for equality if those laws are not then adhered to. From equal marriage to workplace discrimination, financial entitlements to fostering and adoption, I have not only voted for legislation that rightly protects the LGBT community, I have been an advocate for its rigorous enforcement.
As you may have noticed, I am also a practicing Muslim. I have never seen a contradiction between my faith and being Member of Parliament for the fabulously diverse seat of Birmingham Ladywood. In fact, I think it’s more important than ever in today’s volatile and often unpleasant political climate that just as we guard against the perils of bigotry and prejudice, we also respect and listen to the voices of people from across our faith groups. I have always viewed advocating for people of all faiths – and none – as a part of my role as an MP.
My contribution in a recent Westminster Hall debate on RSE followed my undertaking to those parents who came to my surgery to take forward the concerns they raised. And it is on this first point that I think a great deal of the confusion, and subsequent anger, about my speech has stemmed. Their questions were calmly expressed, and focussed not on prejudice, but on process. They felt that they had not been engaged with by the school prior to the new RSE curriculum being launched, and also felt that the Government guidance in place was not being followed as it should.
And this was the point I raised – that the regulations laid down to take account of age, faith and parental consultation were not being adhered to. And it remains my opinion that they should be. I was not calling for new rules, or demanding special treatment – just asking that things be done as the regulations outline.
The parents wanted to be included in the conversation about how their kids would be taught, and at what stage. It was not a conversation about picking and choosing which bits they were taught, but about how best to inform and educate their children from four and up. And yes – making this part of the patchwork of their faith is part of that process.
But we cannot, as body politic or a society, continue to celebrate faith and difference on one hand while turning our face against some of the challenging conversations it sometimes presents. And I think it is incumbent on all of us – politicians included – to do better. The language we use matters just as much as the assumptions we make. And I want to be part of the conversations about both.