‘No Outsiders’ protests in Birmingham schools: the issue of “promote”

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This post is inspired by the excellent inaugural lecture given by Professor Helen Sauntson in February 2019 at the University of York St John. Prof Sauntson drew our attention to the use of the work ‘promote’ in policy documents relating to Relationships and Sex Education in schools, and linked that to the use of ‘promote’ in the Section 28 legislation in the 1980s. The lecture alerted me to the use of the same word in news coverage of recent events in some Birmingham primary schools. I am grateful to Prof Sauntson for her insight. Any faults or misunderstandings in the post below remain, of course, my own.

My point in this blog is that the word ‘promote’ is a vague and slippery customer, especially when used to describe what other people are doing. It is important under these circumstances to spell its implications out.

In 2014 an assistant head teacher in a Birmingham primary school, Andrew Moffat, developed a programme called ‘No Outsiders’. The aim is to teach children to be accepting of others who may have different characteristics from themselves and who may belong to families that are different from their own. The programme includes books featuring animals and children such as: a dog who feels left out because he wears a stripy scarf; a baby penguin who is parented by two male penguins; and a boy who dresses up as a mermaid (“Reading the No Outsiders books” www.bbc.co.uk/news/ 1 April 2019, see the end of this blog for references.)

In March 2019, parents in some schools in Birmingham started protesting about the No Outsiders programme and withdrew their children from school so that they could not participate in these lessons. Some schools have temporarily discontinued the programme, but the argument continues. The issue causing complaint is the representation of same-sex relationships in the books. Those protesting are predominantly of Moslem faith. The arguments focus on ‘primary age children are too young to learn about relationships’ and ‘parents have the right to decide what their children will be taught’, but the crux of the matter is the positive representation of LGBT+ individuals.

From the various interviews with parents that have been broadcast it is clear that there is a diversity of views, from the parent who says she is fine with her child learning about same-sex relationships, but only in secondary school, to the parent who accuses the schools of Islamophobia. Among the parents interviewed there is clearly a struggle in finding an accommodation between the belief that homosexuality is wrong and the belief that all people should be treated as equals. One parent says: “We don’t have an issue with them learning yes you will come across same-sex couples [but] Telling children as young as four it’s ok to be gay – it doesn’t go with our beliefs.” Another says: “Morally we don’t accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have [but] They [members of the community] will respect people who are in a same-sex relationship as individuals who have chosen a certain lifestyle.”  (Such mental gymnastics are not restricted to Islam of course, and some members of other faiths persist in painting themselves into similarly tight corners. It should also be remembered that these views do not represent those of all Moslems either.)

What is striking, though, is the emphasis that speakers put upon the idea of coercion. Here are some examples:

“But to a four or five year old you’re planting a seed, an idea, that same-sex relationships are morally fine. That’s the beginning of it.”

“It’s kind of like they are forcing it upon our children, so planting ideas in their head.”

“…but we have a problem with this promoting of homosexuality.”

The parents use two ways to express their concerns here. One is the metaphor of ‘planting’ a ‘seed’. It is not entirely clear what the ‘seed’ is, but it presumably something like ‘it is ok to be gay’. When the child is older, presumably, it will be more difficult to teach the child that ‘it is not ok to be gay’, because the previous idea will have taken hold. It will, presumably, be like trying to pull up a tiny oak sapling – by the time you see the leaves the roots are really quite deep. I keep writing ‘presumably’, and this is the problem with metaphors – it is never entirely clear what the speaker means, and an apparently sensible metaphor can mask some pretty unpleasant views.

The second is the concept of force and ‘promotion’. What does it mean to ‘promote homosexuality’? Here’s a made-up sentence:

“We promote exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Does this mean:

  1. We encourage people to accept those who take regular exercise.
  2. We encourage people to think of exercise as a good thing, specifically, better than lack of exercise.
  3. We encourage people to take exercise.

Likely answers are (3) and possibly (2), with (1) a bit unlikely. So what do parents mean when they say:

“The schools are promoting same-sex relationships.”

Do they mean:

  1. Schools encourage our children to accept those in same-sex relationships.
  2. Schools encourage our children to think of same-sex relationships as better than mixed-sex ones.
  3. Schools encourage our children to enter into same-sex relationships.

By the same logic, likely answers are (3) and possibly (2). The parents state that they are not against (1) above but by using the word ‘promote’ they imply that the No Outsiders programme actually does (2) or (3). That’s quite a claim to level at a book about penguins.

Looking at ‘promote’ in a corpus suggests that it does have the two meanings, equivalent to (2) and (3) above. When the noun that follows it represents an action or change, it suggests ‘making something happen’, as in:

‘NGF was the first growth factor shown to promote the growth of nerve cells…’

NGF did not simply suggest that the growth of nerve cells was acceptable – it made nerve cells grow. When the noun that follows ‘promote’ is a mental process, it suggests ‘making something appear better than the alternatives’, as in:

‘Inntravel is a company that has done much to promote the idea of journeys at a natural pace.’

To say the least, then, ‘promote’ is a loaded word, but also a vague one. Using it to report what teachers do implies an elision between teaching inclusivity and encouraging adoption of a particular lifestyle. Let’s see what that means in practice. Imagine little Joanna is the child of two women, and starts school at the age of 5. All the other children in the class have one man and one woman as parents. What message do we want Joanna and her classmates to grasp?

  1. ‘Let’s all just keep quiet. If Joanna feels excluded that’s just too bad.’
  2. ‘Joanna’s parents are immoral people, but we mustn’t be nasty to Joanna because of that.’
  3. ‘All parents are different, and Joanna’s are different in a particular way, and that’s fine.’
  4. ‘Joanna’s parents are better than other parents.’
  5. ‘We should all be like Joanna’s parents.’

It would seem that the protesting parents would prefer (1) or (2). The message of the No Outsiders scheme would appear to be (3). But the parents appear to think that taking the (3) line inevitably leads to (4) and (5). If teachers really did promote same-sex parenthood, that would certainly imply taking the (4) or (5) line. Spelling that line out reveals it as slightly ridiculous.

As a final note, I looked at the House of Commons Briefing Paper ‘Relationships and Sex Education in Schools (England)’, published 28 February 2019, and searched for the word ‘promote’. The word is used in two ways, grammatically positive and negative:

  • Apparently without irony, the document states that schools should ‘actively promote’ British values and the specified principles, that the RSE guidance should be promoted to schools and governors.
  • The document counters views that particular relationship types should be ‘promoted’ e.g. ‘It doesn’t promote…any particular sexual orientation’; ‘schools are not required to promote same-sex marriage’.

The document appears to interpret ‘promote’ as meaning ‘say that one thing is better than the alternatives’ i.e. schools are required to say that ‘British values’ are better than the (unspecified) alternatives but they should not say that one sexual orientation is better than any other. The latter advice may be given with benign intent, but, as Prof Sauntson pointed out, the history of the ‘promote…sexuality’ collocation gives the phrase unfortunate connotations. Given the confusion over the word, it might be better avoided and less ambiguous advice given.

The No Outsiders books referred to:

Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph (Harper Collins Children’s Books 2016).

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, (Walker Books 2018).

And Tango Make Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole (Simon & Schuster 2007).


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