Language, Politics and History: Section 28 and the Department for Education

George Harvey, MA Student MBS Birmingham

George Harvey, PG Student MBS Birmingham

This week’s blog is written by George Harvey, from our Masters course in Modern British Studies. You can find more details about the course here.

“When used with care and consideration, social media can be an extremely useful political tool. Unfortunately, when the Government attempts to fire short bursts of information to the public at great speed, there is a high chance of miscommunication. For example, a recent tweet from the Department for Education on 2nd November 2014, read as follows:

“Nonsense to say schools ‘must teach gay rights’. We want schools to teach broad curric [sic] based on British values.”

Tweet from the DfE

The resultant uproar from the statement forced the message to be deleted and a series of clarifying tweets emerged, explaining that OFSTED are “rightly ensuring” that schools do not teach pupils that any people are inferior. Putting to one side the absurdity of throwing the phrase “British values” into a discussion without any attempt to explain what those values might actually consist of, the DfE should clearly have taken greater care over the expression of this initial statement. The wording of the declaration produced the fear that the department considered gay rights and British values to be mutually exclusive.

It is of great concern that the Department for Education has apparently not learnt the importance of syntax as part of the discussion of sexual education within schools, as history shows that carelessly worded statements can cause panic, outrage, and a great deal of harm.

The focal point of my historical research to date has been the study of British gay rights groups and their opposition to the creation of the Section 28 legislation by the Thatcher government. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was a rather bizarre attempt to both ban the intentional “promotion” of homosexuality by any local authorities and to halt the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” within schools.

Although the legislation itself was so badly worded that it was completely ineffectual in a legal sense, it placed the idea that homosexuality was inherently inferior to heterosexuality onto the British statute book.[1] Furthermore the language used within the clause caused confusion amongst teachers which hindered their ability to halt homophobic bullying through fear of contravening the legislation.

Only in 2003 was Section 28 finally removed, one of several reforms made under the Blair government to improve the legal standing of British homosexuals within society. Ideally, this is where the story should end, with the meaningless and offensive document struck from the record and with no further influence within schools.

However, as recently as 2013 over forty schools across the country were shown to have sex-education guidelines that warned teachers against “promoting” homosexuality. Whilst it was encouraging to see the Department for Education quickly refer to the behaviour of these schools as “unacceptable”, it has to be a concern that the language of Section 28 has been allowed to linger ten years after the legislation was abolished.   This is especially important as the very idea that sexuality can be “promoted” onto school children to fundamentally change their sexual orientation is simply incorrect.

Although their subsequent explanations show that the DfE had no intention of tweeting a homophobic viewpoint, one does have to question why such an important topic was dealt with in such a hurried and badly-worded fashion. Section 28 showed the damage that can be caused by carelessly worded statements on the discussion of homosexuality within schools, and as the creators of the legislation, the Conservative Party should be fully aware of their past mistakes in this area.

Although the party legalised same-sex marriage within Britain, they did so with the support of under half of their MPs, so whilst the official party line is one of equality, homophobic thought is still prevalent. Therefore, the Conservative Party will continue to be scrutinised for their record on gay rights, especially by those who have felt the effects of Section 28. Consequently, every single public statement on homosexuality should be fully thought out and properly expressed; if that cannot be done in 140 characters or less, then it should not be attempted.

Within their recent work The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage have discussed the need for policymakers to turn to historians in the style of the longue durée for advice on political action in the present day. However, this particular instance illuminates how (at the very least) it is equally important for political parties to operate using their knowledge of more recent, short term historical events.

Clearly the Conservative Party has come a long way since 1988 in both its attitude and its policies towards homosexuality in Britain. However, apologising for Section 28 is not the same as fully understanding the effects the legislation had, and the manner in which language was used to affront the gay community. Here is an opportunity for the Conservatives to look into their recent past for guidance on their present day actions.

Gazing from a historical perspective in particular, it was a real shock to see the Department for Education write so haphazardly on such an important issue; one which the Conservative Party in particular should be taking as seriously as possible, considering their previous use of slapdash writing to offend British homosexuals.”

[1] S. Jeffery-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present (London, 1991), pp. 236-237.

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