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Schools: Curriculum

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take steps to prevent the booklet Pure Manhood: How to Become the Man God Wants You to Be being used as part of the school curriculum.

My Lords, the Government take the issue of homophobia in schools very seriously. This and other forms of bullying or discrimination are of course covered by the Equality Act 2010. However, in passing the Equality Act, curriculum materials were excluded, as a ban could inhibit classroom debate and the illustration of different viewpoints. We have no plans to change the position reached in 2010.

My Lords, can the Minister then tell us what specific actions the Government might consider to prevent the distribution in any school of literature that is clearly homophobic, undermines HIV prevention campaigns and is likely to incite further homophobic bullying?

My Lords, the Government are extremely clear that material used for the purpose of inciting homophobic bullying would be completely improper. 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 of the sort my noble friend mentioned was full of all sorts of errors of the kind to which he referred.

My Lords, have I been wrongly under the impression that in this country we no longer ban books or, indeed, burn them? If equality legislation, while enacted in the name of social progress, has the effect of dragging us back to that illiberal state of affairs, may there not be a case for reviewing the relevant aspects of the legislation?

The point that I was trying to make—perhaps not very clearly—was that the precise point reached about curriculum materials in connection with the Equality Act in 2010 was that it would not lead to the conclusion which the noble Lord and I would want to avoid: that is, that materials to which individuals might take exception would be banned. We absolutely do not want to get to a point where that happens; those days—from whatever point of view that is taken—are fortunately past. Because of the exemption in the Equality Act, that situation does not arise.

My Lords, is not using this particular document in schools not completely contrary to the department’s guidance, which bans the use of inappropriate materials in sex education classes? 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?

My noble friend is right that the Government issue clear guidance as to what materials are appropriate. If parents, pupils or others are concerned about the use to which particular materials are put, then they have every right to complain to the school, to us, or to the YPLA in the case of an academy. Ofsted can have a look, and we can take a view as to whether the material is being used inappropriately. If the material to which both my noble friends refer 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.

My Lords, I think it is important to clarify this. Is the Minister aware that the Explanatory Notes written by his own department to accompany the Equality Act made it clear that the curriculum is covered by the Act? This would obviously outlaw any activity—such as the document we have been talking about this afternoon—which could lead to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or potentially encourage homophobic bullying. Can he please clarify once and for all the status of this document? A public clarification on this could, perhaps, lance the boil of some of the controversial debate taking place on this subject .

I hope I have explained, but if I have failed I will try to make it clearer. 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.

As it happens, I have read the material to which the noble Lord referred. Many views expressed in it are not ones to which I would subscribe. However, there are many pieces of information, material and literature that contain views to which I do not subscribe, and I do not have a great desire to ban people who hold views different from mine.

My Lords, is it not taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut to ask parents or others who object to homophobic material being used in schools to apply to Ofsted or take action under the Equality Act?

The noble Lord implied in an earlier answer that the only remedy that a parent had if they objected to the use of homophobic material in the classroom was to apply to Ofsted or bring proceedings under the Equality Act. Is that not taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

I hope that I said that there was a range of routes. Those options are at the extreme end of the routes. Complaints may also be made to the school, the governing body and the department, and to the YPLA on behalf of the department.