Was this "hateful extremism" or simply schools riding roughshod over parents' concerns? Nick Ryan lifts the lid on the protests which nearly paralysed several Birmingham primary schools last year.
TOWARDS THE END of last year, the High Court in London held a most extraordinary hearing.
It heard of a divisive petition, ugly and vocal protests, children withdrawn from schools, accusations of homophobia and intolerance, claims of “outside forces” and a focus – for a few fevered months – of the nation’s attention on a small group of Birmingham primary schools where (mainly) Muslim parents and protesters had seemed to visibly clash with the very notion of a modern, British identity.
In November the High Court permanently extended a ban on highly-vocal protests outside Anderton Park primary school in Sparkhill, Birmingham, which had been regularly targeted by up to 300 (mainly Muslim) adults. Some – but not all – were parents outraged at the school’s teaching of LGBT+ inclusive lessons.
The protesters had claimed children were being “sexualised” and that the school’s teaching about LGBT+ identities conflicted with their religion. However, the High Court judge, Mr Justice Warby, said that Muslim activists who had led the protests had “grossly misrepresented” what they claimed was being taught.
“They have suggested the school is promoting homosexuality when it is not,” he ruled.
It brought to an end, at least temporarily, a very bitter dispute in the heart of Birmingham’s growing Muslim communities.
But what had brought things to such a head: where staff were treated for stress, an openly gay assistant head said he was targeted with threats, and the Government’s official counter-extremism body suggested “outsiders” had sought to inflame parents’ religious sensitivities to increase tensions?
It all began with a petition
In January last year Mariam Ahmed, whose child attended another local Birmingham primary school, Parkfield Community in Alum Rock, raised a petition which claimed that the school’s teachings around LGBT+ inclusivity, as part of something called the ‘No Outsiders’ project, contradicted the Islamic faith.
Like Anderton Park, which was later affected, these were local primary schools that happened to serve a largely Muslim intake of children, many from Pakistani-heritage backgrounds.
“Children at this age don’t even know if they are coming or going, let alone knowing what sexual orientation they will become,” Mrs Ahmed said when she launched her petition. (Many Muslims consider acts of homosexuality to be haram, or forbidden.)
Some parents claimed the school had handled the introduction of No Outsiders without adequate consultation, though the programme had been piloted back in 2014 and had been adopted by other schools across the country. In February 2019 Parkfield was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
No Outsiders was in fact the brainchild of Andrew Moffat, the assistant head teacher at Parkfield. Moffat is openly gay and author of several books and educational resources. He was previously awarded an MBE for his work in equality education.
Moffat said he created No Outsiders to teach children about the characteristics enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act, and about British values. He wanted pupils to “be proud of who they are while recognising and celebrating difference and diversity”.
The project used books about subjects such as a dog that didn’t fit in, two male penguins that raised a chick together, and a boy who liked to dress up like a mermaid.
With Mrs Ahmed’s petition gaining attention early last year, meetings took place between Moffat and concerned parents. Some became “personal and aggressive”, the school said in a statement. It was then that a number of parents began protesting outside Parkfield as the children left for the day, while others chose to keep their children at home.
These parents claimed in their own statement that No Outsiders “falsely claims to rely on legislation (Equality Act 2010) in justifying promotion of homosexuality. Children are expected to affirm, verbally and in writing, that “being gay is OK”.”
The statement talked about “an imposition of belief, which undermines the faith, beliefs and values espoused by the parents and community that the school serves” and stated that: “The school is promoting Mr Moffat’s personal beliefs and convictions about the universal acceptability of homosexuality as being normal and morally correct.”
The stage thus seemed set for a clash between socially conservative parents of one faith, and the education system and laws of the land on the other (the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that the 2010 Equality Act, which Andrew Moffat claimed his programme helped enshrine, is designed to “protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all” and “promotes a fair and more equal society”).
Despite pausing and later modifying the No Outsiders lessons, the protests outside Parkfield accelerated and were soon held on a daily basis. Four other schools in the city – Leigh Primary School, Alston Primary School, Marlborough Junior and Infants School and Wyndcliff Primary School – halted their lessons. In March hundreds of children were withdrawn from Parkfield for the day.
Andrew Moffat said that he received “nasty emails” and threats, including one which warned he “wouldn’t last long”.
It was at this point – in March 2019 – that the protests also spread to another primary school, Anderton Park, in Birmingham’s Sparkhill, one of the city’s most diverse communities.
The school had been highly praised by Ofsted for its community ethos, and hailed by the city council as “the leading light in Birmingham for its equalities work”. It carries a tribute to Jo Cox across the wall in a communal area, with her message “We have more in common than that which divides us” writ large.
Though Anderton Park didn’t specifically teach No Outsiders, protesting Muslim parents argued the school’s equality teachings “were the same” as Parkfield.
Soon the protests there, too, were being held on a daily basis, highly vocal with megaphones and sound system. The head teacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, later told the National Association of Head Teachers’ conference that protesters outside the school had waved banners with slogans such as “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, and “We have a say in what they learn”.
She also claimed: “The lead protesters have no children at my school.”
So who were these protesters?
One was a man named Amir Ahmed, whoco-ordinated protests outside seven Birmingham primary schools.
He had no children at any of the affected schools, but claimed he was motivated by his religious beliefs, believing that No Outsiders was proselytising for a gay lifestyle.
“We are a traditional community – we have traditional family values and morally we do not accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have,” he told the BBC. “We do not believe in homosexuality but that does not make us homophobic.”
Meanwhile, the protests outside Anderton Park school were led by another man with no children at the school (though he’d gone there as a child), a 32-year-old property developer called Shakeel Afsar. He got involved, he said, after his sister’s son brought home a book about a boy who wanted to dress up as a girl. His own daughter was sent to an Islamic school.
The 32-year-old spent weeks appearing outside Anderton Park with a microphone, chanting slogans alongside fellow campaigners such as: “Let kids be kids” and “Our kids, our choice”.
According to reports, Afsar had grown up in a heavily-politicised household. His father, Najib Afsar, was head of the Birmingham-based Jammu Kashmir Liberation Council (JKLC), and would regularly give talks and organise protests about the disputed region. Afsar senior called Ms Hewitt-Clarkson a “dictator” and said he was proud of his son.
With things hotting up, former Crown Prosecution star, Nazir Afzal, a practising Muslim who’d successfully prosecuted so-called ‘grooming gangs’ in the north west, was brought in to mediate between parents and Anderton Park. But efforts broke down, leaving him furious with the protesters and claiming they were being manipulated.
“Stop this immediately. It is disgraceful,” he posted in a video. “You are grown men and a few women standing outside a primary school in a residential street shouting and chanting and screaming.”
What he found, he said, was “disturbing” and “frustrating” with “outside forces” at work, deliberately generating fear and confusion, including sharing false images of what was claimed to be being shown to very young children.
“People are presenting to parents false ideas that children are being shown books featuring gay sex, there’s talk of grooming, talk of wanting to ‘take our kids’. It is malicious,” he said.
“I have looked at the curriculum and studied the books used. The more I looked at it, the more I thought ‘what the hell are they playing at?’ There is nothing remotely sexual in the content. Then I realised something more was at work.”
Things came to a head in late May last year.
On 20 May over 300 people gathered outside the school’s gates, demanding Ms Hewitt-Clarkson’s resignation. Hundreds of children were withdrawn from Anderton Park they claimed.
At the protest that day a controversial imam called Mullah Bahm appeared. He was filmed shouting: “There are paedophiles in there. Paedophiles in there. They are pushing a paedophile agenda.” As he shouted, he held up an image of a gingerbread man drawn with genitals.
Bahm claimed that gay people “want to take our children” and called for mass protests, saying there was a need to show “Muslims are not asleep”. His audience included young children, who heard him describe Ms Hewitt-Clarkson as “shatani” (devilish), saying: “That woman needs to be broken.”
Birmingham Labour MP, Jess Phillips, confronted Shakeel Afsar near the school, accusing him of damaging the reputation of Birmingham’s “peaceful and loving” Muslim community.
“It is hate preaching. The protest has to be stopped. I feel like everyone is pussyfooting around a load of bigots. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the schools. These are people with a religious extremist agenda. They are holding schools under siege.”
With the nation’s news cameras descending on the area and fears rocketing, it seemed the city council had heard the message. In June it obtained a temporary injunction banning the increasingly vocal protests.
By this point, 21 teachers had been treated for stress, many were in tears at a meeting organised between the council, head teachers and the Department for Education, local residents had reported “alarm” and “panic attacks”, while children had had to be taught with windows shut, and some parents – who didn’t agree with the protests – said they were “intimidated”.
As for Shakeel Afsar, at the later High Court hearing he tried to deny claims he’d given Mullah Bahm a platform for his views, saying he had never met the controversial imam. But he was filmed with Bahm at the protests, even holding his microphone and the gingerbread man illustration, despite telling the court he “did not realise what was on the paper”.
Acting for Birmingham City Council, Jonathan Manning QC said: “You are the elected spokesperson of the parents’ group, many of them as you say who don’t speak any English, and you know that suggesting this is being taught in classrooms … is totally irresponsible and designed to do nothing but inflame concerned parents.”
Who was to blame?
Nazir Afzal says that the protesters’ actions were “disgraceful”.
And the protests certainly fed into far-right and Islamophobic memes about Muslims, with Ms Hewitt-Clarkson saying her school had been sent anti-Muslim and far-right material.
An anonymously-quoted Prevent official said they believed that both Islamist and far-right activists were using the protests “to foster division between communities”.
After the protests began in Birmingham, it’s also true that other schools across England received letters opposing similar classes, some from Christian parents and others Muslim.
The head teacher of a London primary school told BBC Newsnight that more than 100 children at her school had been withdrawn from similar classes as Parkfield and Anderton Park. She said the majority of parents who objected were Christians.
All this sparked MPs to demand further action. Fifty Labour MPs wrote to the-then Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, demanding the government make LGBT education a legal requirement rather than a recommendation.
An official probe by the Commission for Countering Extremism said it found evidence that the school protests were exploited by the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and other pro-Islamist organisations, in order to foster divisions against the LGBT+ community. The Government had been slow to react, it said.
The Commission also said that the spreading of information by a protest group called Stop RSE, in late 2018, about forthcoming statutory changes to relationships and sex education in 2020, was another key trigger for the protests.
The leader of Stop RSE, Dr Kate Godfrey-Faussett, said on YouTube that the Government had a “totalitarian endeavour to indoctrinate our children in sexual ideologies”. She was another ‘guest speaker’ at an event attended by parents involved in the Anderton Park protests.
It seems quite possible that sensitivities over the Trojan Horse ‘scandal’ – into an alleged hardline “takeover” in Birmingham schools in 2014 (an accusation and finding which is hotly disputed by many Muslims) – might have played into the schools dispute, as might fears and antipathy generated by past controversies over the Government’s Prevent safeguarding programme.
According to one senior Muslim figure I spoke to, many traditional Muslim communities might not be “as open as they should be” when it comes to same-sex relationships.
They felt mistakes had been made in initially linking the No Outsiders project to Prevent – at least in people’s minds – by mentioning “deradicalisation” in some of the project’s original materials. Some of these materials were “very in your face”, they said, making them more difficult to deal with in a community context where around half of all Muslims were born outside the UK (and an even higher number for those aged over 40).
But, they said, “we should not be pandering to homophobes” either.
Another local Muslim believed there were issues with some of Andrew Moffat’s material. “There’s very little mention of racism, sexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, disabilities, mental health issues in the programme,” they claimed. “There needs to be a balance of all these to cover equality for all. The whole programme is promoted as an equality for all, but only talks about homosexuality in Andrew Moffat’s book.”
That does seem to reflect a view found in parts of the local Muslim community, and is one hotly disputed by figures such as Nazir Afzal, as well as the schools, council and clearly the courts. But it also reveals the perception gap which has opened between parents, local Muslims and the schools and wider education system – a dangerous gulf indeed.
As for any lasting harm, the effects of the protests were certainly felt by teaching staff, some of who were told they would “burn in hell”, and many of whom had to receive additional support. It must have clearly caused confusion for some children, too, caught between opposing demands at home and school and having to run the gauntlet of protesters.
Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield Community School who developed No Outsiders, went on to lead the Birmingham Pride march last year, but said that he had “never experienced homophobia like I have in the last six months”.
At the end of last year Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson was named ‘Person of the Year’ by teachers’ magazine, the TES. Yet she said that Birmingham East – where her school is located – had seen a significant rise in homophobic hate crimes, rising from six to 26 incidents comparing March 2018 vs March 2019 (West Midlands police figures). There was also a rise in attacks on Birmingham’s Muslim community around the same time, although on a smaller scale (22 incidents in March 2019 vs a monthly average of 10).
One interesting uptick from all this, according to a source I spoke to, is that they believed homeschooling might have increased in the Muslim communities around the schools – though cited no direct evidence for the claim.
And that perhaps speaks of the difficulty here, in the perception gaps which lie quite openly between all the parties.
After November’s High Court ruling, Dr Tim O’Neill, director of education and skills at Birmingham City Council, admitted something of the sort when he said: “There remains a gap between the reality of what is and isn’t being taught at the school.”
Then he echoed the words of Nazir Afzal and the Commission for Countering Extremism, saying: “Protests of this kind only serve to attract fringe elements whose aim is to stoke division and hatred.”
Meanwhile, some Muslim LGBT+ activists have said they’ve been left fearful by events. “The ruling is going to cause a lot of uproar and upset,” said Saima Razzaq, a Muslim LGBT+ activist and a member of the group Supporting Education of Equality and Diversity in Schools (Seeds).
“I don’t think [the ban] is going to be a solution to the issue. I do fear things are only going to get worse. The people who are protesting are not going to change their opinion overnight.”
Meanwhile, in a press conference following the verdict, the protesters said an appeal was “highly likely” and their campaign would go on with protests at the edge of the exclusion zone. And if that’s the case, then extremists of all shades will undoubtedly welcome them.
Author of a critically-acclaimed journey inside white supremacist groups worldwide (HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate), Nick is an award-winning journalist and producer, and nominee for the Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism. He is a communications strategist and HOPE not hate's former communications director, and as a strategic consultant today heads up our special projects work, including editing the HOPE not hate magazine.Twitter