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System Change

Tackling Homophobia: RE GCSE – Not just a matter of conscience.

My RE GCSE marking crisis.

My RE GCSE marking crisis. This was RT’d repeatedly.

 

Towards the end of last week, I experienced a minor crisis during an intense coincidence of events that raised questions about the values we promote in my school and the extent to which we have control over that.  At the heart of the issue is our desire to adopt a strong position on equality in relation to sexuality;  to tackle homophobic language and promote LGBT rights in a positive and proactive manner.  Earlier this term I ran an assembly to raise the issue, as described in this post promoting Stonewall’s superb resources.

My blogpost from February

My blogpost from February

 

This then led to a number of students volunteering to join our embryonic Equalities Group.  The two dominant issues of concern are low-level but persistent homophobia surrounding the pejorative use of ‘gay’ and the sexism that several of our Sixth Form girls experience and want to tackle more robustly and systematically.  On March 27th we held an assembly run by one of our Y13 students who wanted to share his perspective on being gay and on homophobia.   (It was nicely coincidental that this preceded the first gay weddings on March 29th.).

Here are a couple of excerpts from the assembly – one of the most powerful and important I’ve ever heard a student give. Bear in mind this is given on the stage to an audience of nearly 1000 people including students from  Year 7-13 and their teachers.  He used the format of an FAQs exchange:

Assembly excerpt.

Assembly excerpt.

 

This message about sexual identity is absolutely critical to the issue.  Teenagers growing up are all going through the process of discovering their sexual identity.  These are not choices we make.

Assembly Excerpt 2.

Assembly Excerpt 2.

This was very powerful: LGBT issues affect us all.  He went on to link the general persistence of homophobia to a wider equality and rights agenda and the importance that we should all attach to that in the communities we operate in.  He received a wonderful, impassioned and extended round of applause.  It was moving and intelligent; unanswerable.  I had tears in my eyes because, even though we’d discussed the importance of avoiding gay-victim associations, I knew that it took great courage to do what he’d done.   Later that day I had another meeting of our Equalities Group where we discussed a range of actions that the students felt we could be taking.  They will be addressing the school on the issue of sexism just after Easter.  I’m so proud of them all; young people who want to tackle prejudice and discrimination head-on and are sick of the persistent undercurrent that is tolerated and even celebrated by too many people in the name of comedy/banter/post-modern irony….or whatever.

So – what was the crisis?  This is where the RE GCSE comes in.

At Christmas I took over a Year 10 RE class following the departure of a colleague.  They are entered for the AQA RE GCSE Short Course, taken in May of Year 10.  At this stage in the course we are focusing on revision and exam preparation.  In general I think the course is excellent.  Through the vehicle of Christian Ethics, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues including global conflict, drugs, sex and marriage, abortion, crime and punishment and so on.  It is possible to engage in some fantastic discussions.  Many of the questions invite students to consider their own views and to reference these against alternative perspectives including those from  a broad spectrum of Christian traditions.  I’m not remotely alone in being an atheist teacher of RE – my perspective on being an atheist Headteacher is recorded in this  blog post – and I think it has an important place in the curriculum.  It is perfectly possible to teach about Christianity without believing in it – although admittedly some of the Bible referencing is a challenge.   However, as a non-specialist teacher but someone with a sound grasp of the issues and the examination criteria, I am doing my best to see them across the finish line; I’m optimistic that they’ll do well.

The issue arose with the mock exam that we’d set early this term, using the 2012 paper. I didn’t notice this before they sat it but when I was wading very slowly through the scripts to mark them ( a painful process in itself as a non-specialist, taking over 25 mins per script)  I found that one of the optional questions was this:  “Homosexuality is not a sin” Do you agree? ( as in the tweet above.)  I started to read some of the answers and was instantly shocked.   Despite all the messages we’ve been trying to give in the school – and some pretty strong guidance in my RE lessons – students had been given license to spew out their homophobic prejudice.  About half of the responses had taken a ‘disagree’ position.   To give you a flavour of the responses, here is the official examiner’s report:

Examiner's Report for Qu 6d

Examiner’s Report for Qu 6d

Adam and Steve!! You’d better believe it.  I had that response in three scripts from my class alongside the bigoted old chestnuts from Leviticus.    In case you imagine that to disagree was basically the wrong answer (as one twitter respondent suggested), I’m afraid not.  Here is the mark scheme:

Qu 6 d Mark Scheme.

Qu 6 d Mark Scheme.

Not only are the ‘other views’ perfectly acceptable, the ‘agree’ answers include the idea that homosexuality is ‘a matter for individual conscience’ and refers to ‘homosexual tendencies’ – something Rowan Atkinson used to say in his satirical Not The Nine O’Clock News  ‘Vicar’ sketches.  Faced with this, my immediate reaction was that I couldn’t condone it and refused to mark it.  I even put a line through the answers I didn’t approve of – to make the point.  It wasn’t an entirely rational action but that’s what I did.  Imagine if the question had been framed in relation to racism or ‘women’s place is in the home’ or any other piece of backward thinking of that kind.  If you invite students to say if they agree, you are inviting them to disagree – and to express blatant bigotry – in an exam! It’s totally unacceptable and I’m surprised that a greater fuss was not made at the time of real paper in June 2012.

The day after doing this marking, was the day of the assembly quoted above.  Beyond irony – but ultimately fortuitous.  I had a quick meeting with RE colleagues to discuss the situation.  There was a recognition that the question was problematic but that this was not the students’ fault and I accepted that they shouldn’t be made responsible.  There is a technical discussion to have about the theological concept of ‘sin’ and an interpretation of the question that is this:  “Is it appropriate to regard homosexuality as a ‘sin’ within the context of Christian teaching?” My view is that Y10 students are not in a position to differentiate between that version and the interpretation  that is “Homosexuality is unacceptable. Do you agree?” – switching a double negative into an affirmative response.  One comment I received suggested my issue stemmed from being a non-specialist RE teacher.  I don’t think that’s it at all.

Luckily I was due to teach my class that day.  They’d all been in the assembly so when I raised the issue, they understood.  I told them why I hadn’t marked Question 6d and why it was so wrong for them to have been put in a situation where, to answer an RE exam question, they’d been taken down a path of expressing homophobic attitudes – in a manner that their own teacher found deeply offensive.  There was a good response even though I know that some of my students hold these particular religious views quite strongly and find themselves conflicted by the messages they receive at school and at home.  In the end I gave them ‘technical marks’, happy in the knowledge I’d dealt with the issue head-on.

There are some big questions for us to answer as we look ahead.  So far we’ve only managed to have preliminary discussions about the value of the whole topic within an RE course and this is set to continue next term.  Is it a legitimate topic for 14-15 year olds to debate? I’m not sure; not if our over-riding objective is to tackle homophobic prejudice.  There is a line of argument from some ultra-literal/traditional Christian quarters that sexual relationships should be confined to their procreative purpose within marriage. (Often the same folk who oppose contraception and cling onto creationism.) On that basis, any sex, including gay sex, is unacceptable if it isn’t procreative.  The logic is that gay sex is wrong; end of story.  For me, that is not an acceptable debate to be having at this level.  Why should a young gay person have to sit in a classroom listening to badly-informed teenagers telling them that they’re not entitled to have sex; that their sexuality has lower value.  Given the persistence of homophobic intolerance  and the vulnerability of young gay teenagers, I don’t think schools should allow that possibility on any grounds.

Does this mean that certain religious beliefs have to be suppressed and given lower value or even denounced? Well, yes it does. It’s a position a school needs to take at the highest level.  I’ll be saying that the school needs to make it very explicit: if you want to attend this school where gay students have identical rights and freedoms to any other student, including the freedom from prejudice or intolerance of their sexual orientation  – you’d better be happy to keep any religious bigotry to yourself. (We might not express it in those terms exactly!)   What does that mean for the RE syllabus?  That’s the subject of further discussion.  At this point I don’t know what the alternatives are but one thing is for sure, if I ever see an exam paper like that again, I’d be making the strongest complaint imaginable. I’d even consider legal action.

 

 

 

 

Discussion

48 thoughts on “Tackling Homophobia: RE GCSE – Not just a matter of conscience.

  1. I found this post really interesting, thank you. So people are allowed to demonstrate bigotry and still pass the exam. Things are shifting aren’t they, but clearly not fast enough in this area. Like you say, it wouldn’t be acceptable if it was to do with racism. Do you think it would be acceptable if the question was worded more like “Some people think that homosexuality is a sin, why might they think that?” I know that could still allow people to express bigoted views, albeit slightly removed from themselves, but it’s still important for people to understand where bigoted views come from in order to learn that they should be rejected isn’t it? I don’t know the answer, I’m just wondering really!

    Posted by Vanessa-Jane Chapman | April 6, 2014, 1:25 pm
    • I think you are right. That distance is essential for students at this age. They need to understand the origins of bigotry – definitely. However, it’s obvious that the exam board is far too ambivalent in its position on homophobia. That’s pretty shameful in this day and age.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 1:53 pm
  2. It seems to me to be a very clumsy attempt on the part of AQA to advance a liberal ‘freedom of speech’ approach to the ‘ethical issue’. Whilst the question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin shouldn’t be one we’re still having to ask in 2014, the fact remains that the debate continues to rage in certain circles. For AQA, I suppose that justifies a scenario whereby students of juxtaposing opinions have an equal opportunity to express them. And given the fundamental liberal principle of free speech – “I may despise what you say but I’ll die for your right to say it”, and all that jazz – then this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, if we are to censor the opinions of bigots by simply putting a figurative ‘line’ through their answers, then we abandon the very principles we are supposed to be upholding in the first place. And let’s be clear: in the eyes of the board’s executives, AQA can’t present the question in a way which is clearly biased towards one specific answer for fear of ‘offending’ the people who hold the offensive views. Underpinning all of this, then, this is the classic liberal conundrum: do we allow students to express illiberal views in the name of the higher liberal principle of freedom of speech? It’s a tricky one.

    Still, I agree that the question is poorly worded and does seem to condone the wanton expression of irrational religious BS. Maybe it would be better if homosexuality wasn’t tackled in this context at all, given the illiberal quashing a liberal marker is apparently forced to enact.

    Posted by James Dilley | April 6, 2014, 1:32 pm
    • Thanks James. You’re absolutely right. It’s at the heart of it. To me it’s about weighing free speech vs creating a space (ie school) where all young people can be themselves. Here I think the debate is premature. Only the most confident gay students can stand up for themselves in the face of the steady drip of homophobia. There are lots of other areas where open debate doesn’t run into this issue – eg euthanasia, abortion, death penalty and so on. All students can participate and express their views without anyone’s personal freedom being affected by the debate itself.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 1:43 pm
  3. Very interesting blog bringing up a whole host of issues for RE! Ultimately we should aim to drive home the message that homophobia is completely unacceptable, we also eneed to ensure that students are aware that homophobic views DO exist in society (possibly some of their own views) and that we break these down and help them to competently challenge them in society. I would hope that through good quality RE prejudice views are broken down and discussed & that messages of tolerance, peace and respect are forever present. Given the recent events in Russia and Uganda & the recent legalistion of gay marriage in the UK I most definitely believe that it is an important topic that should be openly discussed and challenged by young people today

    Posted by Tara O'Halloran | April 6, 2014, 1:41 pm
    • I agree completely. I think there is a version of this question and the whole topic where it is crystal clear that the prejudice is unacceptable. There is a difference between the ‘do you agree’ questions and the ‘explain the views of…’ questions. For example, in relation to racism, it is absolutely clear and no student would ever have a reason to write a justification of racist intolerance. Of course the difference is that the Bible does contain material to support a homophobic position. The exam boards need to take a stance, recognising that gay students are likely to be in every classroom. Probably this needs legislation so that RE doesn’t allow for bigotry to be perpetuated.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 1:51 pm
  4. This made me cry. I’ve been harassed & pushed into taking on board bigotry as acceptable views to be allowed in the classroom. I’ve been threatened with not teaching my specialism if I didnt pursue a conservative stance on this issue. I’ve made racism comparisons & been told the Gov’s call the shots but warned off challenging them. I’ve been refused displays, videos, assemblies and coming out myself to be a role model . To be told that sharing my sexuality is offensive and would not be supported by the school was so hard, especially by people who still can’t describe black colleagues as black or refer to staffs same sex partners as their ‘little friends’.
    I left that school. It’s not all that much better out of there but that was the pits. When you said you’d consider taking legal action my heart jumped, a real fist pumping moment! Thank you for seeing what I’ve been trying to pick at for ages and taking this further. The issues you highlight are a real breach of equality standards in education. Some of us have been hammering this for a while whilst being treated unfairly ourselves. It’s tragic. The exam boards show an inherent lack of understanding on gay issues. Challenge them. Don’t stop. We need you.

    Posted by Lily | April 6, 2014, 2:23 pm
    • Hi Lily. I’ll do what I think is right whenever I get the opportunity. Schools that can’t accept gay teachers and students are a disgrace. It’s actually illegal and they should be exposed and challenged. Good that you left.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 2:47 pm
  5. Firstly, you have done the most important thing which is to support one of your students in delivering an assembly. When a student in my school was able to do that it made the biggest difference. Beyond that we face a huge dilemma. For my family members and friends, young and old I think their sexuality is their business, just as mine is mine. When I am close to them and have gained their trust they share that information and I get to meet their partners and that enriches my life, to the youngest person closest to me I tell them I love them for all that they are and feel glad they are happy to share. But it is my opinion that it’s their business they should not have to share this with anyone they don’t want to.

    So in this context and with these loved ones in mind I do agree that these young people should not have to sit through open debates, where people get to air grotesque views.

    However, many of my students are given a set of views from home, some are homophobic, some anti immigration with no nuance with respect to refugees or asylum seekers or invited economic immigrants or our perceived rights to emigrate, some are degrading to women, and most (perhaps more understandably)have a very simplistic and brutal view of peadophiles etc I think it is the place of schools give students information to enable them to begin a more complex opinion forming.

    For many issues such as the death penalty I work carefully with my students to show them show them opinions can be complex and multifaceted and most importantly that they can change, based on evidence and information. I think that as a humanities teacher this is the most important thing I can teach them, to form their own opinion and be open to changing it.

    As students become more confident they say to me, this is said at home, what is your opinion? I always emphasise that it is their opinion that is most important and I will decide whether or not to give my opinion on a case by case basis. But my antihomophobic, anti disability stance is clear and supported by posters in my room.

    So perhaps a solution in this case is to to take questions in a box and give, or research answers as a class to questions that you have selected. In this way gay students are not exposed to the more extreme points of view, but extreme opinions from home environments are counteracted with an evidenced based approach.

    Teaching the views of different religions could then be done in a more text book fashion.

    Another reflection I throw into the mix is I want to protect the person I love but if I had a daughter she would be exposed to sexism every hour of every day. So protection would not be an option and analysis of historical and religious views would be inevitable. So far better to arm her and educate than to try to minimise her exposure further.

    Posted by Beccy | April 6, 2014, 3:14 pm
  6. Interesting read. But disappointed that you write so dismissively about people who choose to not use contraception for religious reasons or believe in creationism. Equality only works if everyone shows some level of respect and do not speak in a condescending way. There’s a real push for anyone with religious beliefs to be mocked for their obvious stupidity.

    Posted by jjames | April 6, 2014, 4:15 pm
    • I’m sorry but on both of those issues, I have good cause. I could discuss contraception – although only at the level of personal use, not national policy as in South Africa wrt AIDS/HIV. But creationism? That’s an immediate loser. It’s a fantasy and most rational Christians accept that too. I tell new parents to my school that their children will be taught that evolution is a fact: because it is. At the same time I enjoy excellent relationships with religious staff and students.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 4:41 pm
      • I’m sure you do. That’s not what I’m saying. To an atheist, believing in God is a complete fantasy too, there is quite an aggressive anti religion attitude where people who believe in God are openly ridiculed (not that I’m saying you’re doing this, it is just noticeable, particularly in modern stand-up for example) There are many aspects in many religions that do seem ‘crazy’ to those who don’t believe them. I believe in creation, I’m aware it’s not a commonly held belief in this country and I don’t teach it in class but I still think it’s true. I felt that comment undermined your general argument and was unnecessary in that context as it’s quite difficult to argue people can have their own opinions as long as they’re vetted by academia. Hope that’s clear! I’m not trying to be rude or provocative, just trying to make a comment on how I saw it

        Posted by jjames | April 6, 2014, 6:48 pm
  7. Similar problems have occurred in the past. AQA set a question ‘ Why do some people hate Jews?’ A couple of years ago. naturally there was an uproar. Their response was that a question such as ‘ why do some people commit crimes?’ -is not seeking a justification for crime but an explanation given by some people as to why some people commit crimes. AQA just seem to devise clumsy questions. However, as an R.E. Teacher I still feel the question about homosexuality was a valid one- just badly worded. I don’t want to give the likes of Dawkins et al any fuel for removing R.E. From the curriculum. I also think that putting a line through pupils’ answers smacks of censorship – I would far rather mark them down on the lack of rational coherence in their arguments or the clear lack of balance ( the question clearly asks students to show that they have at least considered more than one point of view).

    Posted by Deborah Wilson | April 6, 2014, 5:37 pm
    • Thanks. I’d defend RE’s position on the curriculum but this doesn’t exactly help. The Jewish question was ridiculous. I accept putting a line through the work was rather rash. I’m just being honest about what I did – I’m not defending that. However I’m relaxed about censorship when it comes to protecting vulnerable people. Discussing sexuality is itself highly sensitive – we take lots of care over this in Sex Ed lessons. But when it is treated as a neutral ethical issue topic there’s a huge risk to children who already feel marginalised. Also, there was no scope to mark them down according to the official mark scheme. They did consider other points of view but expressed the ‘disagree’ position in terms that shouldn’t be acceptable. eg, I still feel homosexuality is a sin because…… proceeding to run through the usual case as if it was perfectly acceptable.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 5:55 pm
  8. Also, you may see something *similar* in a GCSE history exam ‘The native Americans were savages-do you agree’ where you would need to argue both sides to reach top marks, arguably, pupils should not argue ‘for’ in any way

    Posted by jjames | April 6, 2014, 7:40 pm
    • With respect, that would never happen.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 6, 2014, 8:19 pm
      • Is that in reference to my exam question on Native Americans? I’m afraid I’m right, as I’ve seen it! Seriously! Only recently, there was a source on the practise of exposure that asked ‘Does this source prove that Indians were cruel?’

        Posted by jjames | April 6, 2014, 8:36 pm
  9. A useful way to regard these questions can be to put yourself in the position of the ‘consumer’. If you were a homosexual student in a high stakes exam being asked to include in your answer both sides of the view “homosexuality is a sin”, this will mean you are being required to construct an argument wherein you define yourself as a sinner. I would suspect the writer of the exam is making the error of assuming as a basic starting point that all the students are writing from the position of being heterosexual. Would we ask female students to argue on both sides of the debate “women are not fit to be priests”?

    Posted by Christopher Waugh | April 7, 2014, 7:13 am
    • Thanks Chris. I agree with that. In theory students are asked to explain alternative perspectives which is crucial in something like ‘war can never be justified’ or ‘euthanasia is an act of love’ … but the assumption that kids can put themselves on the line and debate their own identities is where a line is crossed. In the case of women priests, you might justify ‘explain why some Christians don’t believe women should be priests’ but not ‘ women are not fit to be priests, do you agree?’.

      Unlike racism, where identification is straight-forward, debating homosexuality allows people to assume a degree of distance – that it’s hypothetical or about ‘other people’ – when they should act as if the people are talking to a group that includes gay people. This applies to RE and Sex Ed. Teachers should assume there are gay students in every class they teach. Otherwise it’s like a group of men debating feminism; you might just think differently about what you say if women are in the group.

      I’m glad this post has generated some discussion. The exam boards have got to move forward quickly. They’re not just behind social change – they’re even behind the law.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 7, 2014, 8:39 am
      • I agree entirely. I remember I was once catching a train home after a gay pride event where I was wearing a t-shirt with a gay slogan and a man came up to me and said with hostility “you realise there are children on this train”. I responded with “I was a child once too”. The assumption of everyone’s heterosexuality is one of the more all-pervasive problems for young gay people. This isn’t helped by the tendency for most schools to encourage gay teachers to conceal their sexuality.

        Posted by Christopher Waugh | April 8, 2014, 6:10 am
  10. Your first mistake is right here: “In general I think the course is excellent. Through the vehicle of Christian Ethics, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues including global conflict, drugs, sex and marriage, abortion, crime and punishment and so on.”

    For reasons of convenience and unwillingness to grasp the nettle of secularism, we are attempting to teach (about) morality through the vehicle of religion. There is nothing “excellent” about this, but I find many atheist teachers fall into the same trap. Yes, you can have some great lessons, but when the theoretical underpinning is unsound, there will always be unwanted consequences.

    Posted by Adrian Bailey | April 7, 2014, 9:50 am
    • I understand that point – but in our context I think the course is good; we learn about religion and about ethics. Across Year 7-10 we teach about various different religions and secular perspectives, including my own, are given due weight. We feel that the Christian Ethics GCSE course is a reasonable balance because it allows us to evaluate one set of religious perspectives in more depth whilst exploring the general ethical issues. We can challenge that theoretical underpinning. In my school community it works well enough. We could look for a secular equivalent but then we’d only skim the RE element. A good understanding of Christian teaching is an important strand of cultural capital in this country- to use the jargon – so it has merit on many levels. The issue I’m raising here is completely avoidable.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 7, 2014, 11:05 am
  11. Really nice article. I teach ethics surrounding reproduction, prenatal genetic testing and abortion on medical grounds to 1st year degree students. Tricky with typically 2 or 3 devout RCs per intake. The crucial difference is, I have the ability to set the questions, where I deliberately remove any reference to opinions, and make it clear that even with this contentious issue, I am always looking for answers relating to UK law, not sin. It levels the playing field and is as inclusive as I can make it. How could the RE question be reworded to get some really informative and thought-provoking ? Maybe: Discuss how UK law and ‘sin’ differ with respect to homosexuality (or words to that effect).

    Posted by TheOtherDrX | April 8, 2014, 8:04 am
  12. I am an RE HOD. My whole approach to teaching RE is informed by Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, in that I conceive of the classroom as a ‘market place of ideas’ in which all opinions are welcome but must take their turn in the crucible of reason and evidence. This includes,opinions that are homophobic, racist, sexist, ageist, etc. My worry about censoring any ‘bad’ opinion is that a) it won’t go away but will simply fester, free from public scrutiny, b) it takes away an important opportunity for us to argue against it and develop, defend and renew our own convictions, and c) is a betrayal of our hard won Enlightenment values. In fact, some of my most memorable teachings experiences have been, being humbled by the mature, reasonable and kind way in which students have discussed the ethics of homosexuality. If RE has any unique role or function in our modern curriculum it is to proviode a safe and respectful forum in which students can discuss any existential concern.

    Posted by Klaus Jones | April 8, 2014, 11:11 am
    • Thanks for the comment. My position is that homosexuality must be tackled in the same way as racism is. ie it is beyond question in this school community that prejudice is unacceptable and only within that context can we discuss other perspectives. We can’t have this ambivalent ‘moral maze’ approach to the ethics of being gay. That’s unacceptable when homophobia is still to prevalent. Schools need to take a clear stance so that gay teenagers grow up being fully accepted for who they are without having others question their identity. We can discuss racial prejudice without ever ever debating whether or not racism is wrong; that’s an absolute and the same should apply to homophobia.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 8, 2014, 1:09 pm
      • I’m sorry but I have serious concerns with what your advocating. Firstly, a ‘market place of ideas’ approach to RE is not the same as an ‘anything goes’ moral relativism. There is a standard at work and it is reason and evidence. If I have a student who voices prejudice views I don’t think I do my best by them or the wider community by simply silencing them, rather I should engage them with reason and argument and convince them of the falsity of their position, not simply because it isn’t ‘right on’ but because it isn’t true. To do otherwise may bring us to the problem in which we say currently find ourselves with the hard right where debate about race and immigration is limited and resultantly ghettoised.

        Having faith in the Enlightenment is having faith in reason, evidence, and man. This means we cannot hide behind censorship but must be willing and on guard every day to defend our belief in the equality of all men. Which is why I have had an open debate with my students about the ethics of racism, to reveal its poverty and sharpen my students minds to the arguments used for and against. Something which I’m glad I did as I quickly discovered that the students in that class may pay lip service to modern liberal values but their understanding of the relevant supporting philosophy was poor; further reason why we need to discuss the hard cases, otherwise we sleep walk into a superficial liberal democracy that can be easily hijacked by its enemies.

        Posted by Klaus Jonea | April 9, 2014, 9:34 am
      • Hi Klaus. That’s an interesting philosophical position and I agree with your objectives. My concern is that, in practice, schools need to have strong safeguards to create an environment in which all young people and adults can express their identities and build self-esteem. This has to override the educative element even if there is a form of censorship that shrouds underlying attitudes that don’t shift. If a kid calls someone a ‘****’ (insert racist term), we take disciplinary action – there is a boundary you do not cross. At the same time we explain why that is unacceptable. I’d have serious concerns about a school that didn’t silence racism – wouldn’t you? We don’t engage in a philosophical debate that entertains the idea that a racist view might be legitimate. The same goes for homophobia; we have to assert the illegitimacy of the bigotry as a precursor to having any debate – because real kids suffer if we don’t. Any discussion or explanation has to take place within a boundary that we have an obligation to establish and enforce. That’s the challenge that schools face.

        Posted by headguruteacher | April 9, 2014, 2:33 pm
      • Yes, schools do need strong safeguards in place so that all students can express their identities and build self-esteem , and any individual who uses derogatory terms should be quickly rebuked but that doesn’t add up to compelling case to deny illiberal views their time or place in the public forum. Certainly teachers may need to moderate debate and at times save certain issues for another day , but I still contend that we do a disservice to our students, the wider community and liberal democracy if we censor debate.

        For me this is a part and parcel of a wider problem in our society in which the public understanding of liberal democracy is becoming dangerously thin and reduced to something like set of ‘right on’ maxims, such as ‘racism is bad’, ‘homophobia is bad’, and ‘sexism is bad’, while the life blood of a healthy civil society, public debate, is falling away being replaced by career politics, focus groups and consumerism. In this respect I defer to the work of the philosopher Michael Sandel and educational theorist Mike Apple who point to gradual replacement of the public forum by the market, and the high jacking of liberal democratic discourse by business. For example, see the way Gove uses terms such as ‘autonomy’, ‘democracy’, and ‘choice’ to privatise the public education system.

        A student’s welfare must always come first but I would be reluctant to automatically assume that this is always threatened by students sharing illiberal views. In fact, I know of LGBT students who have clearly been empowered by their time to argue against homophobic views., as well as being joined in this task by their fellow non-LGBT students. Ultimately if liberal democracy is to be preserved and maintained it must be part and parcel of school life and this means challenging one and all with hard cases to think about what it means to say all are equal.

        Apologies if these sounds like I’m going off on one but it is an issue that is dear to my heart.

        Posted by Klaus Jones | April 9, 2014, 4:07 pm
      • I can see that and I respect your passion! Stonewall statistics suggest that a ridiculously high proportion of young gay people engage in self harm and consider suicide. Those that can debate their own sexuality are rare I’d suggest. I think it is a question of phasing. Once a school has established the right space where there is no equivocation in relation to LGBT rights, maybe the debate can be more liberal. I don’t think many schools are in that place yet.

        Posted by headguruteacher | April 9, 2014, 4:31 pm
  13. I think there is a confusion here between opinions on homosexuality and opinions of views of homosexuality. There is a difference. In my experience the difference if between a ‘C’ grade student and an ‘A’ grade student. Edexcel do exactly the same kind of question.

    Whether you like it or not Islam is quite clear that homosexuality is a sin. Are Muslims not allowed to believe it is a sin? Are students not allowed to therefore agree it is a sin? The question is asking the student to comment on religious views of it being a sin. There is a fine line here and there are many students who will misinterpret what is being asked. Is it homophobic to agree with the question?

    It may be argued that it is just as bad to ask a student to criticise religious belief, which it is actually doing.

    Should we be telling students that all opinions are ‘correct’ (according to the mark schemes used) unless they’re homophobic or racist etc?

    Should we tell students they cannot agree with religions that have these beliefs?

    We are stuck between freedom of speech and discriminating against certain religious beliefs.

    I’d also like to comment on your statement…
    “Imagine if the question had been framed in relation to racism or ‘women’s place is in the home’ or any other piece of backward thinking of that kind.”

    Again, this is a problem in relation to Muslim beliefs where the role of a woman is to ensure that the home is a good Muslim home. Whilst racism is not acceptable in the main world religions,views on homosexuality and the role of women in the home are not as simple.

    I too have struggled with this exact topic when creating our own practice questions however we need to think very carefully how it can be assessed. No generic mark scheme will work if we say ‘You can write what ever you want except X, Y or Z’. Is it more acceptable to say that abortion is a sin than homosexuality is a sin? Either way you’re going to give an opinion on a belief. Does anyone have that right?

    I am not saying we should allow racist or homophobic comments but I think this is a much deeper issue than students giving their opinion on homosexuality.

    I predict a revolution in RE in the coming years and these issues will feature as part of the discussion on how it needs to move on.

    Posted by missdcox | April 8, 2014, 7:24 pm
    • Thanks for the comment. I sense you are wrestling with the issues but for me it is quite straight-forward. Being gay is a normal expression of human sexuality and gay people have rights that need to be protected given the level of ignorance and prejudice that persists. On that basis, no it is not acceptable for a Muslim or a person of any faith to openly express their bigotry (because that’s what it is) in a school community that is morally and legally obliged to uphold LGBT rights. We need to dispense with the equivocation here and put an end to it. Religious freedom reaches its boundary as soon as it impinges on the rights of others and that is very clear in this area. This means that religious justifications for homophobia need to be kept out of school except in the context that we analyse them for what they are; much as we would analyse Apartheid or changing attitudes to gender roles in history.

      Posted by headguruteacher | April 8, 2014, 9:07 pm
      • Shall we for a moment dwell on our understanding of what the word bigotry actually means!

        http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/bigotry?q=bigotry

        And just in case the point needed ramming home:

        http://adam4d.com/bigot/

        Posted by riverflows77 | April 10, 2014, 8:56 am
      • Sorry, not sure what you mean. Of course I am absolutely set against any views that deem homosexuality to be a sin or any other such nonsense. Of course. It’s not up for discussion. It is 2014. Some people are gay – get over it! In fact as the Head of school with many gay students and staff, it is my duty to protect them against the ignorance that still surrounds them if I can. I’ve had enough of tip-toeing around religious sensibilities in relation to homophobia. If that makes me a bigot in your book, it doesn’t matter.

        Posted by headguruteacher | April 10, 2014, 9:07 am
  14. The dictionary isn’t ‘my’ book

    Posted by riverflows77 | April 10, 2014, 10:09 am
  15. What we are doing here is weighing freedom of expression against any harm/offensive that this speech causes. This is difficult for a number of reasons

    Some people are more easily offended/ harmed than others. So while the quoting of Leviticus has clearly caused you offense I wouldn’t be offended in the slightest. I regard it as an expression of an individual’s religious/social views which you invited by asking an individual! People have different views on things. It is one of the joys of living in a democratic society.See for example LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell defending the right of Christian to express opposition to gay marriage http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2012/11/16/peter-tatchell-facebook-ruling-is-a-victory-for-free-speech/

    “Do you agree?” invites a person to give their opinion and I object to the whole premise you can mark an opinion in any meaningful sense. It isn’t like Chemistry with “hard facts” or even like History where a body of historiography invalidates the most extreme views. When you try you get into positions like this where students giving left-liberal views get awarded marks whereas conservative students have red pen put through their answers which is frankly pretty illiberal.

    There is an element of paternalism here that I personally object to. If students somehow need protecting from objectionable views there is the question of whether this should be on the RE syllabus at all? I take the point that 14/15 year olds might still be a bit unsure about their sexuality so maybe some paternalism is merited? I don’t know. It is a complex issue. I suppose that could be said for most things in RE…

    Posted by Dan | April 10, 2014, 11:07 am
    • Dan, I think you have nailed the tension here but on this issue I side with having the debate (i.e. about the ethics of homosexuality). I have delivered lessons on this very issue in an inner-city comp and a suburban grammar, and in both settings, homophobic views were expressed but overall it was a productive and worthwhile experience in which said views were challenged with reason and evidence, as were the liberal views.

      I really don’t think it is helpful or productive to not give homophobic views a hearing and just dismiss them as bigoted. This doesn’t move the discussion forward, but creates a disgruntled and lost ‘other’. I understand Tom’s concern about the welfare of LGBT students, and the stats are despicable, but for my money the problem won’t be resolved until we discuss and debate the issue.

      To be frank I also wouldn’t mind some clarification from Tom on the following: ‘Of course I am absolutely set against any views that deem homosexuality to be a sin or any other such nonsense.’. If I’m a religious believer who thinks it is God’s will that we shouldn’t partake in homosexual sex, I don’t think you’re going to convince me of the error of my ways by simply saying its nonsense. You’re just going to push me away. To put it another way I bet you any money that Bishop Shelby Spong has done more to remove homophobia from the Episcopal Church than Richard Dawkins. Religion is a complex, multi-faceted beast, simply knocking it into the long-grass with censorship will not make it go away, in fact the results might be worse.

      On this point I was listening to an exciting Q&A today on YouTube featuring the evangelical scholar Mark Noll, who has written an influential book criticizing evangelical Christianity for its lack of intellect, calling all evangelicals to be more critical about their beliefs, politics and morals, and engage with the wider theological community. Voices like this give me hope, but also make me aware of the potential dangers of the bigot, nonsense, censorship response.

      Posted by Klaus Jones | April 10, 2014, 4:19 pm
      • Hi Klaus. From my perspective, in reference to Dan, paternalism is necessary. Homophobic bullying is rife across our schools; we’re not there when this happens. It takes place away from the haven on an RE debate. Just as with racism, the firm absolutes need to be clear. You DO NOT use racist language; you DO NOT disparage someone because of their sexuality. Being gay is normal, natural and has the same status as being straight – in this school. That’s my position. Now… with that in place, we can talk about the way some religions deal with homosexuality but we don’t legitimise the homophobic aspect. I have not at any point suggested we censor or knock religion into the long grass – in general. I may be a committed atheist but I also have many religious colleagues and friends who I discuss these issues with often. You’ve extrapolated my stand against the homophobia inherent in some religious teaching to religion as a whole; that doesn’t come from anything I’ve said. My use of ‘nonsense’ applies specifically to the various arguments against homosexuality. To me, that’s what they all are.

        To conclude, my objective in all of this is not primarily to persuade people the error of their ways; it’s to protect people. Sure, let adults debate the issues and let’s all hope that religious leaders use their power for good. Hopefully attitudes will shift. Meanwhile, in my school, I’ve got vulnerable gay teenagers who don’t have time to wait for society or any given individuals to change their attitudes. They need protection today – so they can be themselves.

        Posted by headguruteacher | April 10, 2014, 5:17 pm
      • Ah, I’m sorry if I haven’t been clear but my comments are restricted to what happens in an RE lesson. I’m with you in that homophobic comments must be rebuked in school, but within the context of a RE lesson on the ethics of homosexuality we must allow for homophobic views to be aired. Which is not the same as saying people can freely use derogatory homophobic language, just that we should allow for the opportunity for anyone to share their view even its not in keeping with modern liberal values.

        ‘Homophobic bullying is rife across our schools; we’re not there when this happens. It takes place away from the haven on an RE debate.’ This has been one of my points all along. By not allowing students to share homophobic views in class you miss an opportunity to listen to and challenge their position. The RE debate can stand as the ‘public forum’ in which everything can be put on the table and discussed in a fair and reasonable manner. Just as students can come to see for themselves why the arguments typically put in defense of homophobia are nonsense, and not simply because the establishment says so. For example, try passing the argument from Natural Moral Law by your students and see how quickly they rip it to shreds.

        I’m just not too keen on paternalism and think that in a way we do a disservice to our students sometimes in not doing what you have done with your religious colleagues and ‘discussed these issues with them, often’. Ultimately, we both want the same goal, we just differ in the method.

        In that I wish you all the best, and apologies if at any point I have misrepresented your position.

        Posted by Klaus Jones | April 10, 2014, 6:24 pm
  16. But it is tough if you are in an inner city school where the vast majority of students come from either Pentecostalist or Muslim backgrounds. A couple of years ago when my son was in year 11, his RE group was almost entirely drawn from this demographic with just three students who weren’t. And one of those was from an evangelical Christian background. The RE teacher took on the role of chair and allowed people to express their views freely. The level of ‘debate’ wasn’t exactly nuanced and it ended up with the entire class except my son and one girl denouncing homosexuality as a sin. The teacher tried to probe and get people to be a bit more reflective – to no avail- my son said it ended up like a pentecostalist rally with the teacher reduced to just raising his eyebrows to show him that he disagreed with the majority view. I think the teacher was totally unprepared for the level of vitriol that spewed forth. ( to be fair, this was not a school with a great ethos in any aspect – casual racism and islamaphobia was rife). But I still think even a really good school with a well prepared RE teacher would face huge problems faced with a class where 95% of the children came from homes where homosexuality is deemed sinful. Maybe the gcse question should be more along the lines of ‘ given that homophobia is illegal and all religions agree that discrimination is wrong, can it ever be morally acceptable for people to believe that homosexuality is sinful? At least this would make students have to work hard to justify their beliefs rather than spew forth unthought out rubbish.
    Also, have other heads just received a booklet from the coalition for marriage? Maybe I got sent it because we are a church school and they wrongly assume that therefore I am on their side. I was going to throw it out but thought I should see what they were saying. Basically it was giving advice on what to do if you get in trouble with your employer for telling a class that you think homosexuality is a sin. It had lots of quotes from politicians intending to mollify religious believers and telling them they had protection in law for their anti gay beliefs. It’s at work so can’t quote from it directly- but worth getting hold of so you know what defence members of staff could lawfully use if you tried to discipline them for homophobia.

    Posted by Primary prowess | April 12, 2014, 12:39 pm
  17. As a gay man myself who is looking to become an RE specialist I have to say that actually I disagree with you here and actually if I had had the option of answering that question when I was a taking my GCSE RE then I definitely would have done so because I find the question philosophically and personally very interesting.

    I don’t think the answer to homophobia in schools is to shield students from the fact that it is out there and where it comes from. I don’t think the answer is to ignore certain aspects of religious belief because they don’t agree with my own beliefs about what is right and wrong.

    When I was taught about the holocaust I was taught about how the Nazis demonised the Jewish people. I could recount examples of how they did this on an exam, at no point did I start to agree with the Nazis. In fact the more I learned about them the more alienated I felt from their ideals.

    The point I am trying to make is that there is nothing wrong with being gay. We don’t have to hold information back from students, we can’t shy away from exam questions that test our beliefs on equality.

    At the time when I was studying GCSE I would have considered myself to be Christian. However I did not consider homosexuality to be a sin. Surprisingly enough I came to this conclusion upon a school religious retreat. During one of the masses, we where encouraged to write down a sin and hand it to the priest who promptly read and burned the message. I wrote that I loved someone I shouldn’t. He said I was forgiven and I went outside to think. I saw my classmates and fellow students become extremely emotional and break down in tears at the effects of this ritual and actually, I didn’t feel any different. It was at this moment I realised that it was because I had nothing to be forgiven for.

    The problem with my school was that they ignored the topic of homosexuality. Having an exam question forces people to deal with it.

    Posted by Dean | August 3, 2014, 1:26 pm
  18. As an atheist RE teacher, I hope you don’t mind me penning a very late reply.

    Fantastic post; yes, pupils’ inability to differentiate between their prejudice and the presentation of a religious point of view will depend entirely on how robustly they have understood the contestable meaning of ‘sin’, negotiated through the lens of cultural relativism and the inconsistency of application when it comes religious teachings that are selectively enforced by different religious strands. Sophisticated answers, I maintain, could even argue that homosexuality is a sin while recognising that believers are not empowered by this ‘knowledge’ to act in a way that is prejudicial or judgemental (part of the RE course as I teach it is, of course, to help pupils understand that the Bible contains a strict hierarchy of commandments, not a dispassionate list of dos and don’ts….for example teaching the New Covenant “love thy neighbour” and “judge not, lest you be judged” bits supporting the commonly held supersessionist belief that Christians are *obligated* to disregard instructions that contradict Jesus’ most central teachings, and instead internalise tolerance and acceptance as core values.) This could hypothetically be supported by citing other Biblical inconsistencies and the way these have been negotiated historically, perhaps with reference to the unknowable nature of God.

    You are quite correct; this level of argument is beyond many in Year 10 (and in my experience, Year 13), and the appalling way the question is worded and the nature of the responses bears this out. It baits children into expressing prejudice, and then presents a curve on which to award ‘credit’ for responses that express these unsupported views. It is also not uncommon – I teach the OCR syllabus, and statements such as “Divorce is wrong” and “The man should be the dominant partner in a relationship” prevail. Presenting the statements in this format implies, of course, the presence of a range of responses, all of which are equally acceptable as long as they are rationalised correctly. The challenge of RE at GCSE is to ensure the issue is explored in sufficient depth that empathy can be developed over and above the brute fact of a religious edict.

    The statement that prompted me to reply was: “Is it a legitimate topic for 14-15 year olds to debate? I’m not sure; not if our over-riding objective is to tackle homophobic prejudice.” I would argue that RE is a superb vehicle for addressing homophobia. The assembly you discussed sounds like it was an immensely powerful forum for the pupils to develop empathy and understanding with a gay peer; I’m sure it had a profound and lasting impact on the pupils, and the fact it was driven by pupil testimony makes it all the more powerful. However, many pupils obviously find it difficult to override the teachings of their faith (or perhaps more bluntly, the expectations of their family/community). I try to use RE to explore religion as an amorphous product of interpretation, prevailing attitudes and a vehicle for empowerment/disempowerment across different eras, political contexts, national identities and the nexus of a thousand other factors. Essentially, you take the pupils who feel their obligation is to *follow* their religion and help them to *interpret* their religion. The result is a far wider range of responses and a far more critical approach than I would ever have expected these pupils – largely literalist Muslims and Christians – to have appreciated in a purely secular context.

    On top of that (and here I perhaps tip my hand) the very presence of the topic in the RE syllabus is empowering for RE teachers as they represent honestly just how marginal homophobia is as a credible stance. I share with them the experiences of gay people, believers and non-believers, and the legal protections they have (belatedly) won, along with the very real and dire repercussions the pupils face for expressing homophobia ‘out in the real world’, and the terrifying implications of their prejudice for others around them. The pupils are often stunned to learn of just how acceptable homosexuality is in the world outside of their cultural enclave – they come to realise that *they* are the ones whose views are unacceptable; a powerful recalibration of their social norms. They are frequently horrified at situations such like in Uganda, where ‘following’ a religious teaching is used as a pretext for violating otherwise inviolate religious requirements such as non-violence and compassion. They can often express these ideas in surprisingly articulate ways!

    I hope I’ve been able to convince you that, grotesque though the exams might be, there is immense value in taking religion as a starting point for tackling homophobia. Congratulations on facing down the issue with such force and efficacy at KEGS; it’s my sincere hope that your approach can be brought to your new school.

    Mr. B.

    Posted by Mr. B. | September 2, 2014, 8:28 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: School of Doubt | Homophobia in U.S. education and abroad, humanities PhDs, scholars you can trust, nd good news in VA: Required Readings, 04.07.14 - April 8, 2014

  2. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts from the week that was Week 13 | high heels and high notes - April 9, 2014

  3. Pingback: Faith & practice in RE – Are we presenting the reality? | missdcoxblog - April 16, 2014

  4. Pingback: Tackling Homophobia in Schools. | headguruteacher - June 26, 2014

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