Two male penguins are struggling to have a baby. They sit on a rock for weeks, thinking it is an egg. A zookeeper, who feels sorry for them, gives them a real egg instead – which hatches.
“And Tango Makes Three” is a true story about male penguins who adopt an egg and raise a chick together at New York’s Central Park Zoo. It is one of the many children’s books about equality and diversity dotted around the classrooms in the red-bricked Anderton Park Primary School in the UK’s second city Birmingham.
The book, along with other titles including “My Princess Boy” and “We Are Family,” is part of a curriculum that teaches students between the ages of six and 11 about the human rights and characteristics legally protected from discrimination by the UK’S 2010 Equality Act. These cover race, religion, gender reassignment and sexual orientation.
But the curriculum at Anderton Park and several other schools in Birmingham has sparked months of confrontations between teachers and mainly Muslim parents who believe it is inappropriate for primary schools to be teaching their kids about things like LGBTQ rights or same-sex relationships.
Since March, angry demonstrators – sometimes in their hundreds – have gathered outside Anderton Park, where the majority of students are Muslim, to protest. Students have sometimes been pulled out of class for a day and teachers say they have been harassed at the school gates and online.
The protesters represent a blend of parents and concerned members of the community. Amir Ahmed became one of its leaders, despite not having a child at Anderton Park, because he said he was worried about what children in his community were being taught. He told CNN there was “an agenda and a concerted effort to change the attitude and beliefs of children on sexuality away from our traditional values.”
The school’s headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, has been defiant in the face of the protests.
“There are many things that can be the glue that holds the math and English and history and geography music lessons together – and in this school, it’s our ethos of equality,” she said of the importance of teaching about LGBTQ relationships.
Referring to a sign brandished during one protest, she told CNN: “If you say ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,’ that is homophobic.”
In a “frequently asked questions” section posted on its website after the initial March protest, Anderton Park wrote: “We are not promoting LGBT, just like we’re not promoting being Christian, being black, being disabled or any other part of the Equality Act. We promote understanding about everyone. We are showing children that there are different kinds of people around us and we respect everyone, no matter what background you are from or they are from.”
By May, the hostilities had escalated to the point that the school had to close early for a mid-term break. Last month, a judge said, “I find it likely the claimant (Birmingham City Council) will establish at trial some of the protesting has gone beyond lawful limits and strayed into harassing, alarming or distressing conduct, through its persistence, timing and context,” the Press Association reported.
The judge imposed a temporary exclusion zone around the school until a trial over whether the protests can be resumed outside the school takes place in July.
But the debate has raged over what can be taught to children in the classroom – and whether the beliefs of some minorities, who see homosexuality as morally wrong – can supersede the need to teach basic human rights in a modern liberal democracy.
Protests and misinformation
The protests at Anderton Park began after the nephew of Shakeel Afsar, 32, brought home a copy of “My Princess Boy.”
“We don’t allow our children who are girls to believe they are boys, or boys to believe they are girls. We only believe in the two genders, which is male and female,” Afsar, who is a property developer, said.