Time to get real on diversity

By Jonathan Bartley
February 26, 2010

In his recent blog on Guardian CIF, Jonathan Chaplain made a very important observation, that workable, mutually respectful compromises need to emerge out of the fog that surrounded the last minute opt-out that Ed Balls inserted into the Children’s Schools and Families Bill, concerning sex education.

He was right too, to ask for the name calling in the debate to end. But just a few sentences later he himself labels Accord’s response as “angry denunciation”, the Guardian’s as "lofty condescension" and Mark Steel’s as "splenetic hysteria". It is perhaps symptomatic of his argument, which calls for compromise – but on his own terms.

There is a tendency in such debates to try and deal with the issues at a primarily academic and philosophical level. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to do so in his recent speech to Synod. Jonathan Chaplain goes further and suggested that underlying the altercations was a deeper but concealed fissure between two distinct models of public diversity – which he contructs under the labels 'individualism' and 'pluralism'. He then said that both sides in the debate must declare which they fall into.

But the models are what Max Weber would have called ‘ideal types’. They are useful for academic debate, but of a purely fictional nature, and a methodological “utopia [that] cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality”. Under scrutiny, the models simply do not hold up. This is clearest upon reading what the Children’s, Schools and Families Bill actually says.

The bill requires that information presented in the course of providing PSHE should be accurate and balanced, that it should be taught in a way that is appropriate both to the ages of the pupils concerned and to their religious and cultural backgrounds. A reasonable range of religious, cultural and other perspectives must be offered. The final requirement is that it should be taught in a way that endeavours to promote equality, encourages the acceptance of diversity, and emphasises the importance of both rights and responsibilities.

Chaplain’s implication is that, in its unamended form, the proposed legislation is the product of the ‘individualistic’ model. According to Chaplain, this would mean it contained an “unstated assumption” that “institutions other than the state have no secure rights of their own to decide on individual conduct within their own sphere.”

But nothing in the unamended bill would have prevented a school from teaching in accordance with its ethos. Indeed, the bill actually requires schools to teach in a way that is appropriate to their religious and cultural backgrounds.

Ed Balls’ amendment however, rode roughshod over what should have been an excellent compromise. It stated that such requirements (of reflecting diversity and religious and cultural perspectives) were not to be read as preventing the governing body or the head teacher of a school from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character. In other words, religious schools should be able to do what they like, even if it promotes inequality and works against diversity - provided they can justify it in terms of their religion.

Clearly the amendment does not fit Jonathan Chaplain's fictitious model of ‘pluralism’, which he suggests “protects a robust regime of individual equality rights”. The protections have been removed completely by the amendment in the face of religous conviction.

If we are going to find common ground, we need to find a better approach than the one Jonathan Chaplain is offering, which seems useful only for academic debate, and has little grounding in reality.

But a basis in the real world is crucial, because of what is at stake. Homophobic bullying, which at its worst can result in the deaths of children, is too important an issue to be left to abstract academic debate. If different sides are to move forward together over issues of diversity, it needs to be with those who are likely to be most affected firmly at the centre.


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