Why the headlines got it wrong.
A week ago today the Church of England published an updated version of its guidance on tackling bullying in church schools, Valuing All God’s Children. This report generated a media firestorm, which concentrated on the issue of what little boys should be allowed to wear in school. Thus the headline in the Daily Telegraph said ‘Let boys wear Tutus and high heels if they want to, Church of England says’ the Mail online went with ‘Let little boys wear tiaras’ and the Metro’s headline was ‘Boys should be able to wear tutus, tiaras and heels if they want, says Church of England.’
These headlines, and others like them, all distort one very small part of what the report has to say. What the report actually says in one paragraph on page 20 is the following:
‘In the early years context and throughout primary school, play should be a hallmark of creative exploration. Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity (sometimes quite literally with the dressing up box). Children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment. Childhood has a sacred space for creative self-imagining.’
Contrary to the impression given by the headlines this paragraph does not say anything at all about what boys in particular should wear and it says nothing at all about what any child should be allowed to normally wear to school. All it says is that children should be allow to choose what they like from the dressing up box.
Presumably the headlines were motivated by the fact that no one would be interested in a story headed ‘Children should have free choice from the dressing up box’ but what they succeeded in doing was missing the point of the report as whole, which can be more accurately summed up as ‘Church of England gives guidance to schools on combatting ‘homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.’
By focusing on their own fantasy version of the report rather than what the report actually said, what the press coverage failed to spot was that there are three big problems with the report.
Problem 1: A limited focus.
The first problem lies with the fact that the report singles out three particular forms of bullying for exclusive attention.
In his Foreword to the report the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly notes that ‘All bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying causes profound damage, leading to higher levels of mental health disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide.’ If all bullying has this effect (and no one in their right mind will deny that it does) then it is not clear why the report concentrates particularly on three particular kinds of bullying.
Such concentration could be justified if (a) these kinds of bullying need highlighting because no one has been addressing them before (b) these are the most prevalent kinds of bullying in church schools or (c) these kinds of bullying are more damaging to those involved than other kinds of bullying. However, the report does not provide any evidence to support any of these three points and in fact no such evidence seems to exist.
The truth is that Church of England schools (like all other state schools) have (rightly) been tackling bullying aimed at those who are known to be (or who are perceived as) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender for a number of years, that this kind of bullying is not the most widespread form of bullying that takes place (numerically, the bullying of straight teenage girls on the basis of their looks, or the bullying of those with learning difficulties, is far more common and, as the report itself says, the incidences of bullying of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils are actually declining), and that there is no research that shows that this kind of bullying is qualitatively more damaging than other forms of bullying when it does occur.
If anyone really wants to know about the reality of bullying they need to look not at this report but at the Annual Bullying Survey – 2017 Bullying Statistics in the UK available at https://www.dichthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey- 2017. This tells us that the top reason people say they are bullied is attitudes to my appearance (50%) followed by attitudes to my interests or hobbies (40%). Attitudes to my sexuality and my gender identity or expression come bottom of the list at 4% and 3% respectively.
Furthermore, by concentrating on these statistically rare forms of bullying, the Church of England is sending out a message which says that, whatever the title of the report may declare, in reality it values some of God’s children more than others. We show what we value by what we focus on and the Church of England has decided to focus on the needs of some children and not others. That is not to say that these children do not matter, but they don’t matter more than those whose unhappiness is not mentioned.
In addition those who work in schools have only a limited amount of time and energy available to them and this means that if they are instructed to focus on these three forms of bullying then other forms of bullying will get overlooked, in the same way that a police focus on ‘hate crime’ will lead to other offences (such as, for example, home burglaries) being given less or no attention.
What the Church of England should have done is either issued a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy, of which action against homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying would have been a part, or issued a range of reports detailing the action to be taken to combat the whole range of different forms of bullying that children now face both at school and online. They could even have asked the bullying survey for help.
Problem 2: Some views are more equal than others.
The second problem is that integral to the action that the report calls for to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is ‘speaking clearly about LGBT equality.’ (p.18). What this will mean in practice is church schools promoting acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages, families with two parents of the same sex, and people changing their gender identity from male to female, or female to male, or from male or female to some other ‘non gender-binary’ identity. By extension it will also mean teaching pupils who have been brought up to think differently that they, their families, and their place of worship, are wrong and need to change their position.
On page 11 of the report we are told that:
‘Professor Trevor Cooling’s metaphor of a Bedouin ‘tent of meeting’ may be a helpful model for Church schools. This strategy asks teachers or facilitators to host a space where different views can be aired and honoured: ‘a place of hospitality, welcome and respectful engagement, sacred and mutual, but not neutral to its own Christian values, whilst being genuinely open to the free expression of engagement’.
However, this idea of a church school as a neutral place of meeting between those with different views about sexuality where a range of views can be ‘aired and honoured’ will be undermined if the school’s policy is to promote the view that same-sex relationships and families and gender transition should be accepted by everyone and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. If it is to be truly neutral a school surely has to say ‘some think this, and others think that, but as an institution we have no view of the matter.’ A school promoting LGBT equality cannot say that
The idea of a church school as place where a range of views about sexuality can be ‘aired and honoured’ is further undermined when Section 6 of the template for a school’s anti- bullying template talks about ‘prejudiced based incidents’ as follows:
‘A prejudice based incident is a one-off incident of unkind or hurtful behaviour that is motivated by a prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group. It can be targeted towards an individual or group of people and have a significant impact on those targeted. All prejudice based incidents are taken seriously and recorded and monitored in school, with the head teacher regularly reporting incidents to the governing body. This not only ensures that all incidents are dealt with accordingly, but also helps to prevent bullying as it enables targeted anti-bullying interventions.’ (p.33)
The difficulty with this paragraph lies in in its definition of ‘prejudice’ as ‘negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group.’ What this will mean in practice is that any expression of moral disapproval of same-sex relationships (including same-sex marriage) or of gender transition that is regarded as ‘unkind’ or ‘hurtful’ by someone who identifies as homosexual, bisexual or transgender will have to be logged as a ‘prejudice based incident’ and will render the culprit (whether pupil or teacher) liable to disciplinary action (‘targeted anti-bullying interventions’). The result of such an approach will not be difficult to foresee. Staff and pupils alike will very soon learn that any such expression of disapproval will not be ‘honoured’ but will land them in serious trouble and so a regime of self- censorship will prevail.
Rather than teaching people to deal with differences of view in an open and respectful way, what pupils will be taught is not to express opinions that are disapproved by the dominant social group. They will learn, to misquote George Orwell, that all views may be equal ‘but some are more equal than others.’ Is this really what church schools should be teaching their children?
Problem 3: A thin theology.
The third problem with the report is that its theological basis is thin in the extreme. What the report tells us is that the theological basis for its recommendations is the belief that
‘… all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually. Our aim is that all may flourish and have an abundant life. Schools have a duty to try to remove any factor that might represent a hindrance to a child’s fulfilment’ (p.5)
The problem is that the report does not explain how we know that helping a child find fulfilment in line with the fact that they are loved by God means telling him or her that it is OK for them to enter into same-sex relationships, or declare that they are a member of the opposite sex, or that they are gender neutral. Throughout the entire history of the Christian Church until the last few decades of the twentieth century, this view of human fulfilment would have been regarded as completely morally perverse in the same way that we would think it morally perverse to tell someone that it is OK to engage in sexual violence, or sex with children or vulnerable adults.
The implicit assumption underlying the report is that we can disregard what the Church has traditionally thought because we have now progressed morally and know better than our ancestors, However, the only way we could know this is if we had a vantage point outside the historical process that enabled us to see the goal to which humanity is meant to be heading and thereby allowed us to say that we have got closer to that goal than previous generations. As C S Lewis taught us, you can only talk about progress if you know where you are going. Otherwise what you think is progression may actually be walking round in a circle or even going backwards,
Simply saying that all children are loved by God and need to be helped to find their fulfilment does not give us the vantage point we need. It simply begs the question about how the God who loves us wants us to behave and how we can find our fulfilment by living in accordance with his will. This is a question the report not only fails to answer, but fails even to ask.
M B Davie 20.11.17