Teachers as conscientious objectors? Off with their heads!

 Hello.  My name’s Richard and I’m a teacher.  And I detest the monarchy.  With all my heart.  Not the individual members of it; just the institution.  It’s inherently unfair and completely out of place in a modern, democratic society.  The fact that it exists in this country means that we will never rid ourselves of the class system and the toxic history of snobbery that has permeated our society for hundreds of years.  All in all, it’s vile.  And that’s my opinion.

There are other people in this country who adore the monarchy.  They think it is a great institution that has served our country well for hundreds of years.  They like the fact that it prevents us from having an elected political head of state, and they appreciate the fact that it brings lots of tourists to our shores.  They believe that we should treat royals with deference and bow and curtsey whenever we come into contact with them.  And those are their opinions.

The opinions of those who love the monarchy are different from mine.  Considerably so.  As a teacher, I have to teach about the monarchy from time to time.  Usually as part of History lessons, many of which focus on the monarchs of our nation’s past.  But also as part of Personal, Social and Health Education lessons, in which I have to teach about parliament and the democratic process in this country.    There is no directive that says that, as a primary school teacher, I must teach specific lessons about the monarchy and how it works.  Nor is there one that says I must promote the monarchy as a good institution.  But I do have to teach about it obliquely from time to time.

And when I do it riles me a little bit, for I detest the institution so much that I feel that by even mentioning it I’m condoning and indirectly promoting it.  But I teach about it because I live in a country in which the overwhelming majority of people are happy with the monarchy.  Oh, and because it’s my job.  It’s my job, as a teacher, to teach children about the society in which they live; to open their eyes to the world around them; to enable them to be productive, active members of the country in which they live.  And so, when I have to mention the monarchy, I grin and bear it for the much greater good.  How could my pupils possibly be good, free-thinking citizens if I taught them my negative opinion of the monarchy?  Or worse still, didn’t mention the monarchy at all, as if by not mentioning it they would never know about it and it might go away.  That is not what education is about.

Unfortunately, there are those who have a different opinion.  Naturally.  The topic of how teachers teach things they disagree with has come to the fore these last few weeks with the publication of the government’s bill to legalise equal marriage.  Many of the anti-gay lobby, who are desperate to see same-sex couples remain unable to share in the joys of marriage, have leapt on this metaphorical educational bandwagon and issued propaganda claiming that teachers will be prosecuted if they do not promote equal marriage in schools; and that faith schools will have to teach that equal marriage exists and, even, that it is acceptable.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has said that “there will be compulsory teaching of same-sex marriage, dismissal for teachers with a conscientious objection to teaching about same-sex marriage, and no opt-out for faith schools”.  The Coalition for Marriage (C4M) is so worried that it has produced a pamphlet with the alarmist title, Gay Marriage in Primary Schools (available in the Resources section of their website), in which they say that “[i]t seems inescapable that if same sex marriage is legalised many teachers will refuse to teach it to their pupils, triggering scores of expensive and divisive court cases and souring relations both in staffrooms and between schools and parents”.  Gay Marriage in Primary Schools includes, by the way, 22 pages of extracts from excellent books written for children about the topic of homosexuality and equal marriage and thus serves as a really handy list of books that supportive, non-bigoted parents can use if their children have questions about the topic or they feel they want to teach them about it.  Stonewall produces even better resources, but it is pleasingly ironic to me that in producing a pamphlet against equal marriage, C4M have created a really handy resource for those who want to bring their children up to believe that homosexuality is normal.  Free of charge on their website.  Thanks you guys.

But definitely not thanks for the alarmist propaganda you and many others are churning out about the impact that legalising equal marriage will have on teachers and schools.  Let me, as a practising teacher who cares about children and wants only the best for them, set two things straight for you:

1. Primary schools do not teach lessons on marriage
I would love to know what these opponents of equal marriage mean when they say that I will be forced to teach equal marriage to children.  I’d have to be forced to teach straight marriage to them first, which I am not.  Do they imagine that because it says in Section 403(1A)a of the Education Act of 1996 that pupils must “learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children” that we primary school teachers spend hours teaching children the history of marriage and how a marriage ceremony works?  Marriage will be mentioned in passing in sex education lessons (most likely in Years 5 or 6) as a good context in which to have a sexual relationship, although most teachers will make it clear that any loving partnership is a good context for such a relationship.  Children will probably learn about different marriage practices in Religious Education lessons.  On a visit to a church or mosque, they may learn from a member of that religious community the ins and outs of the ceremony.  And that is it.  Marriage is not ‘taught’ in any other way.  Suggesting that if equal marriage is legalised primary schools will be forced to teach endless specific lessons on it is wrong and utterly irresponsible.

2. Teachers have a responsibility to teach the curriculum, which reflects the free and democratic society in which we live
Although primary schools will not teach lessons on equal marriage, should it be legalised, teachers may well have to refer to it, either because their pupils comment on the debate they see taking place around them or simply when they teach sex education or RE and the topic of marriage comes up (as outlined above).  In my opinion (and this is simply my opinion), no teacher in the entire country should be allowed to conscientiously object to mentioning equal marriage in a positive light.  It repulses me to my core to think that any teacher would want to impose their own views on the children they teach (and by refusing to mention it they would be making a public declaration that they believed equal marriage to be wrong; a public declaration that children would pick up on – they are not stupid).  It is our job to teach the curriculum and to teach children that equality and fairness are two of the greatest things they could ever strive for in life.  Of course teachers shouldn’t be allowed to conscientiously object to mentioning the topic of equal marriage.  I have to mention the monarchy, even though I detest it and think it does a lot of damage to the health of our nation.  I wouldn’t dream of refusing to teach about it in a balanced and positive way.  If bigoted teachers are allowed to opt-out of mentioning equal marriage, what’s to stop a racist teacher saying that they refuse to teach about the Civil Rights Movement or an Islamophobic teacher refusing to mention Islam in RE lessons?  If a teacher disagrees with the curriculum, they should argue about it with the government, not with the children in their class.

Needless to say, there will be some parents, many of them religious, some bigoted, and some just ill-informed, who will believe the propaganda of the anti-gay lobby and will write to their MPs over the coming week urging them to vote against the bill in order to ‘protect their children in school’.  I hope, beyond hope, that some of them, however, will hear the clear voice of reason that says that children in schools do not need protecting from learning about equality and fairness, and will realise that what these children need protecting from is the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, the Coalition for Marriage, and teachers who would opt-out of teaching them the good news that society has evolved to embrace those who were once shunned and seen as abnormal.