ISSN 0963-8253

Other issues available | Journal home page | Publisher home page

Volume 42 Number 1 2000



Please note: Volumes 1(1) to 47(1) inclusive can only
be downloaded as complete issues/numbers, i.e. it is not
possible to download only single articles.


Glenn Rikowski The ‘Which Blair’ Project: Giddens, the Third Way and education
Dave Hill New Labour’s Neo-liberal Education Policy
Clare Tikly, Richard Noss & Harvey Goldstein Pupils and Policy: what is the target?
Jane McGregor Travelling Together: teachers meeting the challenge of collaboration
William Henry. The Use of Creole Alongside Standard English to Stimulate Students’ Learning
Clyde Chitty Why the GCSE Should be Abolished
Mary Stiasny Bridging the Gap: Britain’s divided youth
Neil Simco Learning to Comply: the impact of national curricula for primary pupils and primary trainee teachers on the ownership of learning
Frank Newhofer
Control Again Or: the impact of control mechanisms on the culture of the school
Ian Duckett The Development of Key Skills and the Learning Curriculum
Chris Searle Exposing the Truly Conservative Force in Education
Emma Gray Literacy Hour: some thoughts on gender and literacy learning in a Year 2 classroom
Book Reviews




Intolerance, Ignorance, Bigotry: the story of Section 28

The 1980s was a pretty wretched decade for anyone who really cares about the ‘promotion’ of decent civilised values at all levels in society. So much of what the Thatcher Government achieved or tried to achieve was both intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt. In the related areas of sexual diversity and personal relationships, the shining example (if that’s an appropriate way of describing it) was Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.

The timing of Section 28 was itself significant in the story of the Thatcher Government’s approach to the provision of acceptable sex education in state primary and secondary schools. It can be argued that education reflects the dominant politics of a society’s institutions and that sex education reflects the sexual politics of those institutions. In the 1980s (and it is regrettably still true at the start of a new century), sex education was meant to both construct and confirm the categories of ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ which it could then regulate, monitor and control. Indeed, by the end of the decade, schools were viewed by the Right as key sites for social engineering and social control and for the firm application of a particularly vicious form of moral authoritarianism.

A pamphlet published by the right-wing Hillgate Group towards the end of 1986, Whose Schools? A Radical Manifesto, argued that children should be taught unqualified respect for ‘traditional’ family values. They had to be ‘rescued’ from ‘indoctrination in all the fashionable causes of the Radical Left: ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-sexism’, ‘peace education’ (which usually means CND propaganda) and even ‘anti-heterosexism’ (meaning the ‘preaching’ of homosexuality combined with an attack on the belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’).’

It was also in 1986 that the Government found the pretext it needed for launching a major attack on so-called progressive sex education policies. This came in the form of a whipped-up controversy over the alleged use by teachers of a picture book from Denmark called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. This had been published in Copenhagen without any fuss in 1981, and first appeared in this country in an English translation in December 1983. It attempted to present a positive image of a young gay couple bringing up a five-year-old girl, the daughter of Martin.

Writing recently in The Guardian (31 January 2000), the book’s author Suzanne Bosche says she was devastated to find herself ‘embroiled in a British political issue’, with one of her children’s books becoming ‘a weapon in a war over the teaching of sexuality in schools’:

It was absolutely shocking to see the book vilified as homosexual propaganda in the British press back in 1986 and I am shocked to find the same thing happening (to a lesser degree) again now. I feel angry that my intentions in writing this little book – namely to give children a little more knowledge about the world – have been twisted by grown-up people who choose to use it as a weapon in a political battle …. For what it’s worth, I don’t personally think that homosexuality … should be aggressively promoted in schools, but I do think it should be talked about in an informative, unsensational way. And one way of doing that is by making books like mine available to children in schools and libraries – as is done in Denmark – and by letting teachers and parents be prepared to answer questions without unnecessary drama.

The manufactured hysteria caused by the ‘discovery’ of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin in a London Teachers’ Centre (not, as was widely reported, in a London primary school) came at a time when a new Education Bill was making its way through Parliament. In the House of Lords, a number of Conservative peers demanded urgent action on sex education in secondary schools, claiming that the kind of teaching which condoned homosexuality as a ‘valid’ alternative to heterosexuality was not only undermining traditional family life and encouraging divorce, but was also linked with the increase in rapes, attacks on children and sexual crime in general. The panic engendered by the spread of HIV/AIDS was used to justify a ‘Christian-heterosexual’ approach to morality and an attack on gay ‘lifestyles’. In the words of Baroness Cox, a prominent member of the Hillgate Group: ‘I cannot imagine how on earth in this age of AIDS, we can be contemplating promoting gay issues in the curriculum. I think that it beggars all description.’

It was the 1986 Education Act which removed responsibility for school sex education from local education authorities and placed it for the first time in the hands of school governors – an obvious attempt to provide sex education with supposedly ‘conservative’ gatekeepers.

From 1986 onwards, there was an obsession, both at government level and in the popular press, with the traditional family values that sex education was expected to promote. In the run-up to the 1987 General Election, blatant prejudice against homosexuals became a commonplace populist theme; and this prejudice was used to give further emotive force to the criticisms of all educational equal opportunities programmes. The popular misrepresentation of local authority policies on homosexuality (though the number of such policies was very small indeed) had the added advantage of smearing all equal opportunities policies as ‘loony’ by connection.

Once the General Election had been won, Margaret Thatcher made use of the 1987 Conservative Party Conference to launch her own personal attack on what she viewed as ‘extremist’ practices by a number of ‘hard-Left’ schools and local authorities. Prominent among her list of unacceptable practices was the accusation that children who needed to be taught to respect ‘traditional moral values’ were being taught that they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay’.

The final expression of the Government’s authoritarian agenda was Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. This laid down that a local authority shall not:

1. intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;

2. promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

It was soon realised (and this is a point many commentators continue to overlook) that these clauses were not, in fact, aimed at the right target. What the sponsors of Section 28 failed to appreciate was that the 1986 Education Act had already removed sex education in schools from the control of local authorities – a fact which the Government itself was forced to concede in a rarely-cited Department of the Environment Circular published in May 1988:

Responsibility for sex education in schools continues to rest with school governing bodies, by virtue of Section 18 of the Education (No. 2) Act of 1986. Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 does not affect the activities of these school governors, nor of teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of students concerned about their sexuality.

Nevertheless, Section 28 was a key cultural and symbolic event in the recent history of sexual politics in this country. By creating a climate of paranoia and fear around the provision of sex education in schools, it played an important role in undermining the confidence and professionalism of teachers. The very ambiguity of the phrase ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ had the effect of constructing teachers as the potential ‘corrupters’ of their students and of preventing them from engaging in frank and honest debate out of fear of losing their jobs.

The arrival in May 1997 of a Labour government with a huge Commons majority appeared to signal the early repeal of Section 28. This reform has, after all, been a long-standing Labour commitment with the support of the vast majority of Labour MPs.

Things, however, have not gone according to plan. Since the start of this year, the whole affair has been badly handled, with clear signs of government prevarication in the face of strong opposition from the main religious bodies and large sections of the Conservative Party. It has even been suggested that in the event of repeal, new guidelines will be issued which could amount to a reintroduction of Section 28 ‘through the back door’.

By contrast, the supporters of Section 28 have not proved willing to modify their views. On 7 February, the Government suffered a major defeat in the House of Lords when the peers voted by 210 votes to 165, a majority of 45, to keep the measure on the statute book. Most Tory peers, some cross-benchers and a few Labour rebels supported the wrecking amendment by Baroness Young, a former Tory Leader of the Lords, to retain Section 28. Baroness Young’s campaign had been backed by a number of prominent church leaders including Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Thomas Winning, leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, and leading Muslims, including Lord Ahmed, the Labour peer, also opposed repeal.

Baroness Young herself made her position perfectly clear in her uncompromising contribution to the House of Lords debate:

I believe that there is not a moral equivalence between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I believe that we need to set in front of children an ideal by which they should live.

In supporting repeal, Lord Alli, the only openly gay peer, was equally forthright:

This is indeed a debate about morality. For me it is about the morality of hate. I believe that that hate exists because we teach our children to hate. Repeal of Section 28 would be a true test of our moral courage.

It cannot be stated too often that the debate about Section 28 has never been about ‘promoting’ any kind of sexuality over another, at least from the reformers’ point of view. The idea that gay and lesbian teachers were seriously concerned to ‘promote’ homosexuality over and above any other sexual orientation was always a myth perpetuated by Tory ministers and a number of irresponsible right-wing newspapers. What many teachers would like to feel free to ‘promote’ is the acceptability not the superiority of the homosexual lifestyle (though the use of this term is itself problematic since it implies something ‘chosen’, like a fashion accessory).

The issues at stake were neatly summarised in a finely-crafted Observer editorial at the end of January:

Teachers have no wish to be in the business of ‘promoting’ any kind of sexuality, or family structure, over another. Section 28 was never about ‘promotion’ in this sense – it was all about stopping teachers from even talking about same-sex relationships as real, and serious, parts of the world for which children were being prepared. The reason for ditching Section 28 is to allow children to be taught about the real world, a world in which moral values such as commitment, fidelity, care and responsibility are more important than ever, but are not attached exclusively to the marriage contract (The Observer, 30 January 2000).

We are told that teachers will be instructed that they have no role in promoting any sexual orientation, as part of the new guidelines for sex and relationship classes to be published at Easter. But in an apparent contradiction, teachers will be warned not to pass judgement on individual sexuality, while at the same time emphasising marriage and the value of family life. The Government is apparently into the ‘promotion’ business itself.

Clyde Chitty


PO Box 204, Didcot, Oxford OX11 9ZQ, United Kingdom