Posted by Mike Smith, 26 Jun 2019
Revd Mike Smith recently spoke at the National Association of Head Teachers' Conference about the nature and importance of genuine tolerance. Below is the text of his presentation.
Good afternoon. My name is Mike Smith, and I’m the chair of governors at Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery in Northwich. We are a committed and enthusiastic “No Outsiders” community school, and it’s in that context that I’ve been invited to speak to you. We’re thrilled that having been the first school in Cheshire West to adopt the scheme, many more have followed us in our region.
Now in itself, that would make our headteacher far more qualified to speak to you. But I’ve been invited because of the perceived tension between my support for “No Outsiders” and my “day job” as a Christian minister. And, of course, that is seen to have relevance because of the widespread and damaging parental protests against “No Outsiders”, largely from religiously conservative communities. Now most of those who are protesting are doing so from the Islamic faith, and I, clearly, have no remit to speak on their behalf. But my hope this afternoon is that perhaps by sharing some personal reflexions with you from our journey, we might encourage more dialogue and less protest; greater engagement and fewer placards.
And in a word, I want to encourage us to dig deeply into that great British value and virtue of tolerance.
It’s on my mind because it’s been the theme of my assemblies this week at one of our local high schools where I am vice chair of governors and an honorary chaplain. My working definition of tolerance in both schools is this: “tolerance means we accept people who are different to us and we respect people who disagree with us.”
I had some fun by playing the “intolerance game” to start the assembly. All the children stood up. I explained that I’m having a special birthday next week and was getting into the groove of being a grumpy old man. I gave them a series of arbitrary dislikes, and they had to sit down if they were included in one of the groups that suffered my intolerance. Perhaps I enjoyed slightly too much saying I was intolerant of Year 9 as a whole! But they got the point. It’s horrible being made to feel an outsider – suffering the intolerance of others; you feel a stab of it even when you know it’s only a game. I made the point that by the time there were only 3 or 4 standing out of the assembly hall that I had lost contact with everyone who was different to me. And that diminishes us all.
Then I told them a story from Luke’s gospel that illustrated Jesus’ tolerance of those who were intolerant towards him; indeed, he firmly rebuked his own intolerant disciples (Luke 9.51-56) There is a better way: tolerance means we accept people who are different to us and we respect people who disagree with us.
And without doubt, “No Outsiders” is brilliant in teaching the first part of my working definition – acceptance in the face of difference. I want everyone in our school to know and feel they are an “insider”, no matter what their gender, ethnicity, religion, ability, family shape or other distinctive characteristic. We accept people who are different to us. And just to be explicit, this is the positive way of teaching the protection from discrimination provided by the Equality Act.
Now as a Christian, I ground that in the fundamental biblical principle that God made human beings in his own image and likeness. The first thing I know about every person I meet is that they have an innate worth and dignity because they are a reflexion of their Creator. But I hope that whatever your worldview, you won’t disagree with my application for a tolerant society: the unconditional acceptance of people across all secondary differentiation. It’s fundamental to school life, and an essential element in our preparing children to become good citizens in our increasingly fractious society. The tensions, however, come to the surface over the second part of my definition of tolerance, namely respecting those who disagree with us. This, I suspect, is where the real problems lie, and where “No Outsiders” and similar schemes are in danger of over-reach.
Let me illustrate that personally in terms of my experience as a chair, and then make a more general point.
On two separate occasions during my seven years as chair, I have been verbally attacked by a group of parents because of my Christian convictions. The first was a few months after my initial election; a group of 17 parents went to the head to demand my removal. On that occasion, he agreed to my suggestion that we meet the group together and talk it out. It wasn’t entirely enjoyable, but it was effective. They were able to see that their assumptions, caricatures and gossip-fuelled anxieties had no substance to them. The second and more recent occasion involved a smaller group, but was more public, heated and sustained – and was not able to be informally resolved; although the outcome of the formal investigation similarly revealed absolutely no substance to the unpleasant attacks.
But the ground of both was the same: I’m a Christian, and apparently in the eyes of many, a pretty conservative one. I believe Jesus when he says that ultimately he alone reveals God to us, and is the only way to heaven. I believe – and depend upon with my whole heart – his promise that he came “to seek and to save what was lost.” As such, I do not intend to judge people, because I am conscious of my own deep and daily need for the forgiveness at the heart of the Christian gospel. But because I am a Christian disciple, I also believe Jesus’ teaching that the Creator assigns human gender as male or female, and makes us equal, but different. I believe him when he teaches us that marriage is by his design and definition between one man and one woman exclusively for life, and the only right context for sexual activity.
And, of course, it is these convictions around gender and sexuality which – even though not expressed in a primary school context – aroused the wrath of some. Well, the original definition of the word tolerance was “the action or practice of bearing pain or hardship; the power or ability to endure” (NSOED). I would say I’ve learned something of that in my time as chair!
But the more general – and crucial – point is this: tolerance can only be practised in the face of difference and disagreement.
I’ve covered innate difference – we accept people: but what about disagreement? How do we practice and model for our children respect for people with whom we profoundly disagree? How do we do that in the realm of the most personal and fundamental convictions human beings can have? In no particular order, and briefly, let me make five suggestions for a way ahead, critiquing particularly the “No Outsiders” resource book by Andrew Moffat
.First, recognise the changed power dynamic.
An ancient clergyman said to me a few years ago that when he was first ordained, homosexuality was illegal to practice in this country, but that as he retired, it was illegal to criticise it. That’s an exaggeration, but it makes the point about the profound changes our culture has undergone. Those who advocate for LGBTQ equality are now the ones in power in government, the media and education, and those who have traditional convictions are in an increasingly despised minority.
I received a letter 3 weeks ago about a lady who had been sacked from her job as a TA in a high school simply for sharing in her own time amongst her own closed facebook friendship group her deeply held Christian convictions about gender and sexuality; she had been expressing those concerns in response to her own child’s primary school adopting “No Outsiders” I find that deeply disturbing – she was quite literally made an “outsider” in the name of “No Outsiders”. In a civilised society, those with power safeguard those without – otherwise tolerance mutates into totalitarianism.
Second, ditch the word “celebrate”.
I love the word “celebrate”. We have celebration assemblies every Friday at our school. We celebrate our children and their achievements. But I can be tolerant of you without approving of your choices – and vice versa. Specifically, we do not need to “celebrate” one another’s convictions about marriage and human sexuality in order to have a respectful tolerance of one another.
The Equality Act does not use the word. The DfE guidance on teaching the Equality Act in schools does not use the word. In fact, the guidance says quite explicitly:
Many people’s views on sexual orientation/sexual activity are themselves grounded in religious belief… Where individual teachers are concerned, having a view about something does not amount to discrimination.
So it should not be unlawful for a teacher in any school to express personal views on sexual orientation provided that it is done in an appropriate manner and context … [and specifically] No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples. (3.29,32,27)
This is one example where the “No Outsiders” resource, in my view, over-reaches. Moffat writes, “we are all responsible for promoting diversity and celebrating difference, which includes equality for LGBT people.” He may believe that – but he is wrong to say that the Equality Act or DfE Guidance require it.
The Guidance uses the much more inclusive language of, for example, “advancing equality of opportunity” and “[promoting] tolerance and friendship”. I think we would be wise to stick to the language of the Guidance (5.19 and 5.23).
Let me give you one positive example of how we have sought to do that in addressing the LGBT issue in our school. My first degree was in Mathematics and Computing Theory, and one of my heroes is Alan Turing, the computing pioneer – work which he did here in Manchester. We have taught about Turing as part of our Year 6 science syllabus for a number of years. Now, when we tell his story, we include the fact that he was a gay man. We reflect on the way he was treated by the state, and tell the tragic story of his resulting suicide. Whatever our views on homosexuality, his story is an appalling example of an intolerance to which we must never return.
Third, actively honour the people who hold convictions different to your own.
Andrew Moffat tells a story in his book about his success in preventing a number of meetings that SPUC tried to organise for concerned parents in Birmingham. SPUC is the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. I have been a member for 30 years. I know the lady who would have been organising those meetings; I share the concerns she would have been addressing. Every time SPUC tried to organise a meeting, he would inform the venue and persuade them to cancel it. He writes in conclusion, “This presents a strong message: no venue in the city is willing to hold a meeting supporting homophobic views!”
Well I agree that there is a strong message here, but I hear quite a different one. The message I hear very strongly is that there are “no outsiders” unless you have conservative views on marriage, sexuality and the family. I find his approach here difficult to square with any straightforward definition of tolerance. If we are going to build bridges, and not burn them, then we have to recognise that tolerance is painful – and we will need to dig deep to honour people who see things from a radically different place.
Just imagine, if instead of orchestrating the cancellation of those meetings, he or his colleagues had quietly attended, listened to the concerns, identified where there was just caricature, or assumption, or needless anxiety? And, yes, on the other side, where there may have been bigotry masquerading as belief as well. Instead of no-platforming, why not open a dialogue?
Fourth, be open in what you are teaching.
I think this is just so obvious, but we learned the hard way. Many years ago, and under a different regime in our school, we received a letter inviting us to come as parents if we wished to discuss the SRE curriculum our child was to be taught. Only we and one other family took up the offer. When we went to the meeting, the teacher – whether intentionally or not – gave us the impression that she thought we were religious extremists for even asking the questions we’d been invited to ask! She seemed wary of us and told us it wasn’t possible to see the resources that would be used. We were frustrated; our anxieties were increased, not addressed. We partially withdrew our child from those lessons.
As parents, we’ve never done that again, because now the school places a significant emphasis on openness. We still go every time, but now we are able to review the resources. If we have concerns, we raise them with the teacher before the lesson, and we’re ready to talk things over at home – especially when our Christian convictions may lead us to teach our children differently. We’re not afraid of them hearing other views. We want to teach them to have a confidence in their own convictions, a respectful understanding of why others come to different conclusions, and an ability to engage with people who take a different view. But that can only happen when there is trust and openness on both sides.
And fifth, and most importantly of all, keep children central.
There are nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act. The purpose of teaching the Act in primary schools is to help children to learn tolerance.
Beware of those who may have an ideological agenda that involves bringing a focus on one of those protected characteristics. And I include religious leaders in that – remember Trojan Horse. Schools are not the place for adults to promote their ideologies. And in our schools, let’s be sensitive to the age and context of our children. They don’t have to memorise all nine protected characteristics in Reception!
But if a class of 5 year olds has a wheelchair user, then it would seem appropriate to teach about accepting people with disability earlier on. Or if their teacher went on maternity leave, about how that doesn’t mean they stop being a teacher – to take two less controversial protected characteristics. And in that context of focussing on the children in front of us, if the class contains a little boy who lives with mummy and mama, then of course we teach that he belongs, and no-one must look down on his family. We accept people who are different to us.
So in summing up, let me go back to where I began: I love the big idea of “No Outsiders” because every child should feel they belong to their school community.
But to actually put that into practice is going to mean modelling and teaching genuine tolerance, which will include recognising the word’s original meaning of bearing pain and learning endurance; respecting people who profoundly disagree with us. So, I offer this critique of “No Outsiders” in the spirit of the biblical proverb, “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27.6).
And as a final word, and appeal, let us not forget our history. Christian convictions have shaped our culture for a millennium and a half, and were foundational in the very concept of providing education for all. Even more fundamentally, and as a very last word, French ethicist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, “Christianity’s invention of children – that is, its invention of the cultural idea of children as treasured human beings – was really an outgrowth of [Christianity’s] most stupendous and revolutionary idea: the radical equality, and the infinite value, of every single human being …”.
Revd Mike Smith is vicar of St John's Church, Hartford and Chair of Governors at Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery.
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