‘My daughter was told to call historical figures ‘they’ rather than he or she – that’s when alarm bells rang’: Mother reveals her battle to see what her 13-year-old was being taught about sexuality and white privilege at school
Like many parents, the lockdowns of the last two years afforded Clare Page an unexpected insight into her daughter’s school lessons.
Her then 13-year-old — who we will call Isla — attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College, a 1,400-pupil state secondary school in South London. And with teaching taking place online, some of the material she saw unfolding on her daughter’s laptop at home was little short of horrifying.
Isla’s ‘lessons’ — 46-year-old designer Clare uses the term loosely — included a lecture on white privilege; playing a rap song with the lyrics ‘our Prime Minister is a real racist’; and an art lesson where pupils were encouraged to produce their own Black Lives Matter poster after being shown an image of black and white people stabbing each other.
Sex education meanwhile — delivered under the new ‘relationship and sex education’ policy that has become a compulsory part of the curriculum since 2020 — was no less disturbing. It turned out to be provided by the dubiously named ‘School for Sexuality Education’, an external organisation with links to a commercial website that promotes pornography and sex toys.
At its workshops, pupils were informed they lived in a ‘heteronormative’ (straight) world, that this was a bad thing, and they should be ‘sex positive’ instead.
Appalled at what she saw as little short of highly politicised dogma disguised as ‘learning’, Clare asked the school if she could see the material used in some lessons.
Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College, a 1,400-pupil state secondary school in South London runs lessons which includ a lecture on white privilege; playing a rap song with the lyrics ‘our Prime Minister is a real racist’
At its workshops, pupils were informed they lived in a ‘heteronormative’ (straight) world, that this was a bad thing, and they should be ‘sex positive’ instead
Appalled at what she saw as little short of highly politicised dogma disguised as ‘learning’, Clare asked the school if she could see the material used in some lessons
Sex education — delivered under the new ‘relationship and sex education’ policy that has become a compulsory part of the curriculum since 2020 — was no less disturbing
An art lesson encouraged pupils to produce their own Black Lives Matter poster after being shown an image of black and white people stabbing each other
She was told she couldn’t, and her repeated — and ultimately futile — attempts to do so have now led her to make a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office, an independent authority set up, among other things, to promote openness and transparency in public bodies.
She believes that, if asked by a parent, schools should be legally obliged to provide information about the ‘lesson plans’ they use. At present, it is a matter of dispute as to whether they have any obligation to provide the information.
Clare is not alone in her concern: in recent years, a number of campaigning groups have sprung up to tackle what they see as the overt politicisation of children, while a slew of stories has also highlighted the way in which gender and racial politics have crept into the provision of education.
In the last week alone, a fee-paying Christian school in Oxfordshire has become engulfed in a row following a diversity-driven makeover in which the library was garlanded with rainbow LGBT flags, while Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher Education, has written to universities warning them that signing up to equality and diversity schemes could hamper free speech.
On Thursday, Conservative MP Miriam Cates spoke of her concern that recent guidelines are opening doors to ‘age inappropriate’ and ‘extreme’ content being taught in schools.
Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher Education, has written to universities warning them that signing up to equality and diversity schemes could hamper free speech
Clare, however, is one of the few parents prepared to talk openly about the problem, although understandably she has asked for anonymity for her family.
‘I believe passionately in what I am fighting for, but as a parent I also want to protect my daughters,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are terrified of discussing this territory, but someone has to question what is going on.’
‘Otherwise, it means that there is no transparency for parents regarding the messages being handed to our young people.’ Clare and her husband are unlikely lightning rods: impeccably liberal, since marrying in 2001 they have lived in the London borough of Lewisham, a neighbourhood they chose for its diversity.
While privately educated herself, Clare was happy for both her daughters — Isla, now 15 and 12-year-old Natasha — to be schooled in the state system.
Both attended the local primary where, in 2018, Clare had an early insight into the gender politics at play when Natasha, then nine, announced she’d been told to refer to historical figures as ‘they’ rather than he or she because those who had come before us were unable to choose their preferred pronouns and that there were ‘many more than two genders’.
‘That was when the warning bell rang,’ says Clare. ‘I complained to the school and was staggered by the pushback from governors and the head teacher.
‘It was basically a case of ‘there is no way you can touch this’.’
Conservative MP Miriam Cates spoke of her concern that recent guidelines are opening doors to ‘age inappropriate’ and ‘extreme’ content being taught in schools
Clare’s concerns mounted when she learned that representatives from an organisation called ‘Pop’n’Olly’ — a self-styled ‘LGBT+ equality educational resource’ created by author and illustrator Olly Pike — were visiting the school during anti-bullying week.
‘No one is against the idea of an anti-bullying week — but suddenly this message is being conflated with other more complex material,’ she explains.
‘The first thing I knew about it was when I arrived home to find my daughter watching an Olly Pike cartoon about a girl who has an overnight sex change which solves her bullying problem.
‘Even if you take away the issue of whether you should be discussing trans-sexualism to children in primary school, this is highly misleading.’
When Clare complained, she was told that Olly Pike was recommended by the LGBTQ+ lobby group Stonewall which, in turn, was backed by the Department for Education.
Around the same time, Isla had started secondary school at Haberdashers’ Hatcham College in Lewisham — one of a guild of schools founded by a legacy from 17th century benefactor Robert Aske. His name was removed from the school last year because of his purported links to slavery and, at Hatcham, his oil portrait has been removed and his statue repurposed.
A state comprehensive, Hatcham’s intake is 83 per cent black and ethnic minority and 17 per cent white, but Clare says that children from all backgrounds largely got on well.
‘It’s an inner-city school so there are fights and there have been knife fears,’ she says. ‘But, overall, it is a successful, cohesive community and Isla has got very good friends.’
Nonetheless, Clare said she had become concerned about what she saw as overt politicising by teachers, not to mention the peddling of misleading and in some cases downright inaccurate information in lessons.
‘Pop’n’Olly’ — a self-styled ‘LGBT+ equality educational resource’ created by author and illustrator Olly Pike
What Does LGBT+ Mean is a book which discusses trans-sexualism by Olly Pike, who was recommended by the LGBTQ+ lobby group Stonewall which, in turn, was backed by the Department for Education
‘The first thing that made me prick up my ears was when Isla told me her English teacher had come in on his last day at the school wearing a Jeremy Corbyn T-shirt and telling them all they had to vote Labour,’ she recalls.
Not long afterwards she learned that one of her daughter’s peers — a ‘youth coordinator’ for the climate change activists Extinction Rebellion — was leafleting classmates, encouraging them to join the movement and try to get arrested. ‘The teachers were overtly congratulating her,’ she says.
Clare raised her concerns with the school but says she was ignored, despite repeated attempts to secure a meeting.
Then came the first national lockdown of March 2020. With lessons taking place online, it gave Clare and her husband a chance to see what Isla was being taught. What they saw alarmed them, particularly in the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of U.S. police officers in May 2020.
‘One English teacher gave a lesson implying that America was a fascist police state and introduced the kids to a U.S. activist called Tamika Mallory,’ says Clare. ‘Some of her speeches are pretty incendiary, saying things like: ‘I don’t care if you burn down buildings.”
She was further alarmed to learn that in another lesson, a teacher had played a song by a rap artist called Dave which features the lyric ‘our Prime Minister is a real racist’, while Isla and her school friends — then just 13 — had also been shown a painting in an art class of white and black people stabbing each other to inspire them to make their own Black Lives Matters posters.
‘It’s deeply unwise to use a picture of people stabbing each other in a place where there is genuine worry that people might carry a knife,’ says Clare.
‘Some of the resultant images produced by the children and praised by the teacher included a police station on fire and a girl being shot in the head.’
Clare complained once more, and this time received a phone call from a Deputy Head who said they were under huge pressure from staff to respond to Black Lives Matter in the curriculum.
‘I said I wasn’t against that, but they had to be cautious as the organisation at its core is not just an equality movement but a political movement. The conversation was reasonable enough,’ Clare recalls.
But what followed was a series of four assemblies that talked about white privilege and systemic racism. ‘There was a slide that said: ‘Is your curriculum too white?’ Clare recalls. ‘Children were also told that the point of the BLM phrase is that black lives were being treated as expendable by the police and the government that employs them.
Clare complained once more, and this time received a phone call from a Deputy Head who said they were under huge pressure from staff to respond to Black Lives Matter in the curriculum
‘This is against a backdrop of citizens burning things in America and in a London borough that had rioting in 2012. I felt it was completely irresponsible.’
Again Clare and her husband complained until eventually, by autumn 2020, her grievance was heard before three school governors who upheld her complaint about the art class imagery and rap song, but insisted none of it was politically motivated.
‘It meant our overall complaint about indoctrination was not upheld,’ says Clare. ‘One governor, an ex-High Court judge, concluded that my ‘ideals and background’ were misleading me.’
By this stage Clare and her husband had already made the decision to send their youngest daughter to a private school. But with Isla settled, they were reluctant for her to move schools in the run-up to her GCSEs.
For a while, things were calm —but then last autumn, Clare was alarmed to learn of the nature of the school’s RSE provision.
Previously told the lessons would focus on ‘inclusive consent’, in reality, there was also lengthy discussion about ‘heteronormativity’ and the need to be ‘sex positive’.
On paper, the latter is defined by the need to have a healthy, shame-free attitude to all aspects of sexual conduct — but in reality, says Clare, is often a Trojan Horse via which to convey more troublesome ideologies.
Emboldened, Clare asked once more to see the lesson plans, and was once more denied access. ‘At first, they wouldn’t really tell me what the problem was, but then said the School of Sexuality — which, remember, provided content for the RSE lessons — had told them I couldn’t see them because of their commercial interests. That seemed extraordinary to me,’ she reflects.
Clare then took matters into her own hands and called the School for Sexuality directly.
Again Clare and her husband complained until eventually, by autumn 2020, her grievance was heard before three school governors who upheld her complaint about the art class imagery and rap song, but insisted none of it was politically motivated
‘I had a pleasant enough ten-minute conversation with the woman who answered the phone who seemed to agree that I could have access,’ she says.
‘In the wake of that, I learned the Chief Executive had contacted the school and accused me of harassment. She said on no account must the school show me the lesson plan as I was likely anti-LGBTQ+ and organisers ‘would not be safe’ if I was given the lesson plan.’
At the same time, Clare’s own research led her to discover that Nadia Dean, the organisation’s ‘workshop facilitator’, runs a side business promoting sex toys and pornography.
‘There was a link to that website on the organisation’s own website. Another lady on the website links to her blog where she sings a song with her ukulele which features the words ‘Let’s all masturbate’.’
After initially being told that the links would be removed, Clare was informed the school would no longer be using the provider.
‘I was clear they needed to do more than that — that they should notify the DfE that organisations, many of them funded by taxpayers’ money and rubberstamped by government, are peddling deeply troubling ideas under the banner of promoting social justice.’
A spokesperson for the school said: ‘At Hatcham College we want children to critically engage with a wide range of opinions and views that challenge received wisdom.
‘PSHE lessons provide children with the space to explore difficult topics of historical and societal importance, and the vast majority of our parents are supportive of our approach.
‘All our teaching and resources adhere to the Secretary of State’s statutory guidance and best practice, in which they acknowledge areas of ‘understandable and legitimate areas of contention’ due to its depth and breadth.
Clare’s daughter, Isla, has always agreed that what she is encountering doesn’t ‘feel right’
‘We are grateful to Ms Page for raising her concerns, and although her views are unrepresentative of our school communities, we recognise their legitimacy and the part they play in opening an interesting and wider debate about PSHE curricula and access.’
Nonetheless it is clear many parents remain discomfited, while Paul Conrathe, Senior Consultant Solicitor at education specialist Sinclairslaw, says schools that hide behind commercial confidentiality are ‘skating on thin ice’.
‘The critical question is whether it is in the public interest not to disclose those materials,’ he says. ‘How can it be in the public interest to withhold curriculum materials that deal with controversial and sensitive matters on sexuality, sex, gender and race from parents?’
For Clare, a principle is at stake. ‘It has been difficult,’ Clare admits. ‘I’ve had to ask myself all the way through whether this is the right thing to do, whether I am burdening Isla too much with this.
‘There’s been a lot of talking, but ultimately, she has always agreed that what she is encountering doesn’t feel right.
‘We are agreed that parents have a right to know what is being taught to their children.’