Lawyer Nazir Afzal has pointed the finger of blame at ‘cowardly’ Government ministers and outsiders with a ‘malicious’ agenda after his failed bid to broker peace over LGBTQ equality at Anderton Park School.
In his first press interview since the breakdown of talks, Mr Afzal was not holding back on what, or who, he thinks is responsible for a dispute that is dividing the community.
“The Government has been cowardly,” he says.
“They have failed to lead and own this issue (around equality teaching), leaving the burden unfairly on the shoulders of head teachers. It is disgraceful.”
And he warned that protests like this could spread to ‘dozens’ of schools if urgent action is not taken.
He also had a message for the protesters, stating: “Stop this immediately. It is disgraceful.
“You are grown men and a few women standing outside a primary school in a residential street shouting and chanting and screaming.
“Go and make a stand against grown ups if you must, at the town hall, or outside the Department of Education, not outside a primary school.”
Mr Afzal, best known for successfully prosecuting the Rochdale child abuse ring, was brought in to try to mediate between parents and the school over when, and what, should be shared with young pupils about same sex families as part of equality teaching.
What he found, he says, was ‘disturbing’ and ‘frustrating’.
There are the ‘outside forces’ at work – defined by Mr Afzal as ‘people who are not parents of pupils at the school’ – who seem to be deliberately generating fear and confusion, including sharing false images of what they say is 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.”
The legacy of the damaging Trojan Horse affair, which blighted the city’s schools five years ago, is playing a part, he believes.
“The pain left over from the Trojan Horse allegations means there is a desire to seek payback. My message to those people is that I recognise the trust lost from the way those accusations were dealt with – but two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The result is ‘grown men and women’ venting their anger at the gates of the school, while pupils hear their shouts and chants, many directed against their head teacher.
“I’d say to the protesters, stop this immediately.”
He added he believed ‘the vast majority’ of parents want to see an end to the campaign and do not back the protests.
“They are under pressure to join in but they are only concerned with the education of their children and are continuing to support the school despite everything.”
He said he has seen teachers ‘in tears’ and genuine distress over the protests – a position that is ‘completely unacceptable’.
He’s now urging robust intervention by the authorities to keep the protests at bay and strong action at a national level – or else he fears ‘dozens’ more schools could face the same challenge at the gates.
The Government has been cowardly and failed to support teachers, he said.
“Since 2010 it has been clear there is a tension between some of the characteristics protected under the Equality Act, particularly around religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
“It poses a conflict for some, but instead of addressing that conflict the Government has washed its hands, saying these issues are to be dealt with locally, without clear guidelines.
“I have no doubt that this failure of clarity is political.
“As recently as 2003, Section 28 was still in force, and no public schools could talk about LGBT issues positively.
“Across the country a sizeable chunk of the population follow faiths that do not believe in LGBT rights. The Government is in coalition with a political party, the DUP, that has made its views on LGBT very clear (the party opposes same sex marriage, for example).
“The Government’s vagueness means that we could see protests like this spread to dozens of schools across the city and country.
“The only people who can stop this is the Government.
“They need to show leadership.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds wrote exclusively for BirminghamLive earlier this week to call for an end to the protests.
Reflecting on mediation
Mr Afzal is a practising Muslim, born and raised in a terrace in Small Heath, not too distant from Anderton Park School in Balsall Heath.
A former senior CPS prosecutor, Afzal is best known for tackling cases involving violence against women and the sexual exploitation of children – most famously he prosecuted the Rochdale child sex abuse cases, which led to attacks against him from Muslim campaigners and the far right. He has campaigned against honour killings and domestic abuse.
He was asked to support Birmingham City Council and set up mediation between the school and parents at Anderton Park School, taking on the work free of charge.
“It was a desperate situation and I hoped I could help.”
His description of the unfolding mediation efforts suggests there was the chance for compromise and resolution – but this was thwarted, he says, by outside forces.
“From the outset I was open minded and neutral,” he said.
“I’m a Muslim boy from Small Heath and I was witnessing what looked like a very damaging breakdown, with children at the centre who seemed to be the only ones not to have a voice.
“There were one or two individuals who did not have parental responsibility over children at the school who seemed to be pivotal to the unrest.
“I could see the damage going on and it was a cause of real sadness – that is what drew me in to mediate.
“So I met with the head teacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson and spoke to her about the curriculum, what was being taught, and the messages being shared.
“I met with a group of parents. I did not want to exclude anyone from that process so also allowed in non parents at that point.”
They included chief protagonists Shakeel Afsar and Amir Ahmed, who coordinated the biggest protest yet at the school gates last Friday.
Neither are parents of pupils, though Mr Afsar is uncle to two children there.
“I was happy for them all to be in the room to observe but my interest was in speaking to the parents, to really find out what was going on and what their concerns were,” he said.
“Their concerns seemed to be around two books in particular – one about two loving male penguins and an egg they looked after, and one called The Princess Boy about a boy who wore a dress.
“Their concern appeared to be around their perception that these books were symbols of a wider, more sinister message being delivered to children.
“Their concerns appeared to be based in fear and ignorance, not what was actually being taught.
“The teachers were very clear that these books were introduced sensitively, and that children could take the books home and talk with their parents about them. They were also careful to say to pupils that some people don’t agree with this, please speak to your parents.
“I then went back to the head to present these concerns to her.
“She was happy – and remains happy – to talk to parents about when each book was thought to be age appropriate for their child, but banning the books was absolutely off the table.
“The head was keen to meet with parents, in groups or one to one, to discuss the books and consider age appropriateness and agree a way forward. Invitations were sent and accepted, and it seemed positive, he said.
“But then parents collectively said they would only meet with Mr Afsar in the room. They had reneged on the deal agreed. At that point, with the meetings cancelled, I was stood down.”
He said: “I am clear in my mind that the head was keen to move forward, to meet parents, to discuss the age appropriateness of books. She had already been doing so with many parents.
“But once these parents reneged on their agreement to meet and I stepped away, things began to really escalate.
“I have looked on in despair since, seeing people presenting false ideas that children are being shown books featuring gay sex, talk of grooming, talk of wanting to take our kids. It is malicious.
“I have looked at the curriculum and studied the books. There is nothing that is LGBT specific, no references to sex, nothing of that sort.
“I have watched as men turn up to join in protests, often straight from mosque, to chant and shout outside a school. It is nonsense.”
Police have come under fire in some parts of the community for failing to end the protests and not acting against what has been variously described as ‘harassment, intimidation and hate speech’, said Mr Afzal.
“The police’s softly-softly approach towards the protests is understandable. They have to balance lawful protest with the protection of children, staff and residents but I think they have got it wrong. This should not be happening outside a primary school.”
“Knife crime is killing our kids – yet they are worrying about two penguins and an egg.”
More than 300 men and women turned up to protest outside the school last Friday, including campaigners from around the country.
The expected size of the gathering forced the school to close early to ensure pupils and staff could be away from the area before it started – a move widely condemned as unacceptable.
For Mr Afzal, it is ‘the most frustrating thing’ that so much energy and time is being spent on this issue that could be directed against ‘real physical harms’ being done to children in our city.
The lawyer, whose nephew died in a knife attack earlier this year, said: “The scourge of knife crime is killing our children in this city – yet these people are out there spending time and energy over the contents of a book.
“Actual physical harm is being done to our kids, but there is more attention being paid to two penguins and an egg. There is something critically wrong with their priorities.
“They really need to refocus. One in seven prisoners is a British Muslim, yet we make up only one in 25 of the population. Why aren’t they on the streets having conversations about that? I despair, I really do.
“We Muslims are fighting against Islamophobia, we are seeing incidents rise, but we cannot complain about that while indulging in homophobia, or anti semitism, or whatever.
“There is no hierarchy of hate. Nor is there a hierarchy of equality. We need to accept equality for all.”
How Birmingham LGBT lessons row became the debate of the nation
First signs of trouble
A group of angry mums, mostly devout Muslims, launched a protest and petition against their school for introducing a programme that they said ‘supported homosexuality.’
Andrew Moffat MBE, assistant headteacher at Parkfield Community School in Saltley, was the primary target for campaigners.
They were critical of a programme he piloted, called No Outsiders, which includes a series of children’s books which run alongside sex and relationship education (SRE) lessons.
The protestors claim their young children are being told ‘it is okay to be gay’ – a message that they say is at odds with their religious beliefs.
Councillor speaks out to defend parents
Local councillor Mohammed Idrees agrees that being open about LGBT in the classroom ‘is not a good idea’.
The comment sparks a backlash.
Formal complaint for ‘homophobic remark’
Soon after the councillor apologises for ‘getting it wrong’ but a formal complaint alleging ‘homophobic remarks’ is made.
In the period since, very few councillors have openly offered their opinions on the issue.
No Outsiders creator Andrew Moffat speaks out
In his first interview since the debate erupted, Parkfield’s assistant head Andrew Moffat talks about the personal impact of the protests.
He says he felt threatened and targeted.
Ofsted rules lessons are ‘age appropriate’
A short inspection of Parkfield School by Ofsted confirms it remains ‘outstanding’ – and rules the lessons taught through No Outsiders are ‘age appropriate’.
There are hopes that parental fears will be allayed as a result and the furore will die down.
Impact on teachers
By now the coverage of the issue has exended beyond Birmingham.
National newspapers and broadcasters are highlighting the issue, sometimes writing with sensitivity and insight.
This feature in the Guardian, written by Masuma Rahim, is among them.
Rumours and misinformation are fuelling the protests: claim
The impact of protests on staff and parents at Parkfield are addressed in these two articles which focus on the physical and psychological impact of ‘fake’ rumour and innuendo.
Andrew Moffat presents a mock lesson about No Outsiders
A video shows Andrew Moffat presenting a ‘No Outsiders’ lesson during his presentation at the World’s Best Teachers awards. He was a finalist in the prestigious awards for his pioneering work on diversity in schools.
The voice of moderate Muslims
There are concerns that the voice of moderate Muslims is being lost in the increasingly polarised debate.
We invited Green Lane Masjid and Community Centre to contribute with a first person opinion piece.
Protests continue while MPs urge calm negotiation
MP Liam Byrne, whose constituency includes Parkfield School, and neighbouring MP Shabana Mahmood, representing Ladywood, step up to support parents.
Both condemn homophobic chants and banners but also urge respect for religious beliefs and call for dialogue and consultation.
Khalid Mahmood says he understands parental fears about the age appropriateness of the subject matter.
Protest grows and schools react
By now the issue is not isolated to a single school.
But a school in Sparkhill is the one selected as a target by campaigners.
Anderton Park Primary faces a new wave of daily protests.
Some protesters warn parents they will ‘go to hell’ if they don’t sign a protest petition.
Two angry mums, meanwhile, challenged protesters and say they are in the wrong.
In response, the school’s head says she feels “under siege”.
The debate reaches BBC’s flagship Question Time – but the programme’s handling of the issue comes under fire
It was probably intended to sound like a ‘neutral’ question to trigger discussion.
But when a Question Time audience member asked: “Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?” there was an instant social media backlash.
BBC Breakfast presenter Ben Thompson tweeted: “LGBT ‘issues’?
“That we exist?
“One of them, RIGHT HERE, is on your TV every morning.”
A day later the BBC reminded staff ‘not to air personal views’.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds was among the panelists who supported LGBT teaching – but did say schools should always consult with parents.
‘Don’t let homophobia set us back 30 years’ – a parent speaks
BirminghamLive’s politics and people editor Jane Haynes, who has a gay son, gives her personal take on the debate – and triggers more conversation.
Anderton Park Primary is now the sole focus for protestors
Anderton Park Primary, located at the end of a cul de sac, is now the focus of national debate.
Every school day, protestors led by organiser Shakeel Afsar gather to chant slogans and wave placards.
The protests reach a stand off, with protest organisers claiming to have the support of most of the school’s parents for a threatened boycott – while head Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson vows she will not be intimidated.
The head teacher vows: “I won’t back down”.
Gay campaigner and writer Owen Jones reports on the issue
Commentator Owen Jones visits Birmingham to interview key players in the protests.
A brief lull
At Parkfield Community Primary, where the first protests were held, mediators including MP Liam Byrne and the Regional Schools Commissioner continue to host talks between the school and parents.
Lessons are suspended until a resolution is reached.
The solution wanted by the parents’ group, who are supported by Alum Rock Community Forum, is unstated but they remain in consultation.
At Anderton Park Primary, the protest leaders are unequivocal – they want the head to resign and any teaching about LGBT equality to end until a large scale consultation is held with parents.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds clarifies that parents do not have the right to veto parts of the curriculum they disagree with.
Teaching unions and LGBT campaigners insist schools should not be forced to compromise – and that what is being taught at both schools meets legal requirements and is age appropriate.
City council acts to try to shut down lead protestor Shakeel Afsar
A warning letter is issued to Shakeel Afsar, the lead protestor, telling him to stop a series of activities in the vicinity of Anderton Park School – including using a megaphone, and harassing or intimidating staff, parents and children.
The warning does not go down well, nor does it stop Mr Afsar, who turns up to lead the next protest days later. Other protestors take over the megaphone.
He says he is prepared to risk a Community Protection Notice to continue his campaign.
Read about the warning letter here.
And about Mr Afsar’s return to the school protests here.
Newsnight, Sky and more descend on city
TV cameras from the BBC and Sky are turned on Anderton Park School. Their interest coincides with the angriest protest day so far, with around 60 people, including young children, turning out to chant for the head to go and for consultation to take place.
Claims and counterclaims fly around on social media as both sides dig in.
Internationally renowned human rights lawyer Nazir Afzal offers to mediate for free. His presence has yet to bring about reconciliation.
Meanwhile, over at Parkfield School, all is quiet while mediation talks continue, without any sign yet of a decision about what happens next.