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The battle at Birchfields: Sex, relationships and ugliness at a Manchester primary school
A large group of parents gathered to shout at teachers outside a Fallowfield school this week. They say it started with a video about a trans child
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
On Tuesday afternoon, just as the school day was coming to an end, some 100 parents gathered on a leafy street in South Manchester. They were there to pick up their children from Birchfields Primary School, but also to stage a protest about what goes on inside. One man, using a megaphone, led the chanting in call and response:
The parents held placards reading “too much, too soon,” and “stop sexualising our children”. One parent, in the spirit of a maths lesson, laid out an equation: “graphic mat3rial + innocent young children = hypersexualisation.”
Down the road, two men displayed placards to passing traffic. “This school can’t be trusted with kids,” said one. “This school exposes kids to graphic sexual content,” another.
“Say her name,” one mother told the man with the megaphone.
“Can we say her name?” he asked.
“Yeah!” she said, smiling.
He started to shout the name of the headteacher into the megaphone. The crowd shouted her name too. One man, nearer the gates, wearing a cap and shorts, got up against the school railings: “Miss Offord, come out!”
Younger children who were being held in their parents’ arms as they protested plugged their ears with their fingers to protect themselves from the noise. Then two teachers came out of the school and the crowd shifted closer, now standing right on the curb.
“Shame on you!” one man shouted aggressively, directly at the teachers.
One of the teachers appeared to be filming the protest. “Stop recording,” said another man without much conviction — after all, half of the crowd was recording too.
MEA Academy, the secondary school opposite Birchfields, had started to let out. Children poured out onto the street and stopped to watch the parents chanting. The street and the road became more crowded. Some of the high schoolers joined the parents in chanting “Shame on you” at the primary school.
By this point, the situation had become frenzied. Horns were blasting as cars went by and the protestors laughed and chanted and shouted as more staff members appeared. Some of the teachers stood at the gates, as if they wanted to show a bit of defiance. Others slipped out of the gates or into their cars, clearly intimidated by the mob.
Ever since someone tipped us off about the protest on Tuesday, we’ve been trying to build up a picture of how so much animosity has built up between a group of parents and the teachers at this Manchester primary school. A few weeks before the protest, over 300 Birchfields pupils were reportedly taken out of school for three days and parents were threatened with fines by Manchester City Council.
In recent days, matters have escalated significantly, with one parent banned from the school gates. Yesterday, we learned that a protest is being planned outside the home of a senior Manchester councillor. The row seems to come down to a demand — summarised in a letter sent to Birchfields last month — that “the school should be a reflection of the community it represents”.
That letter was signed by Mohammed Sajjad, a 37-year-old pharmacist born and raised in the area. This story starts with him.
Last summer, Sajjad was walking his four daughters home from Birchfields, which sits roughly on the southern border of Longsight and Rusholme. “My standard routine when walking home with the kids,” he told us “is: what did you do today, what did you eat, who did you play with and what did you learn?”
His eldest daughter, who is six years old, turned to Sajjad and said she had been shown a video about a seven-year-old Maltese trans girl named Willa. “We watched a video today,” she said, “about a boy who was sad, but then he became a girl and he was happy.”
Sajjad was alarmed. He thought it was inappropriate for his daughter to be shown a video like that at her age, and that it could cause confusion. He went and asked the school about it, and if he could see it. They sent him a YouTube link.
The video — produced by Transgender Europe, a trans rights group — shows Willa Naylor, a seven-year-old, talking about her gender identity. “My life having to live as a boy was very bad,” she says. “Until one day, I told my mum and dad that I felt I was a girl.” Willa describes the process of her parents allowing her to dress as a girl indoors to see if it was right for her. “And that was good for me, because my life was so much better, and if they had not let me live as a girl, I would have been even more sad.”
Sajjad, who is Muslim, felt the video was okay to watch from the perspective of an adult, less so a child. “Being a pharmacist myself,” Sajjad says. “There’s a lot more context to gender reassignment than: ‘I was a boy, I was sad. Now I’m a girl, and I’m happy.’”
He is not alone in thinking the video might not be appropriate for six-year-olds. A Manchester primary school teacher we consulted, who works at different school, says they are surprised it was used. “That video being shown to Year One is not age-appropriate,” they told us. “This is absolutely why you have to have consultation — parents have to see the resources you’re going to use.”
The teacher is referring to an annual consultation process that goes on between most primary schools and parents — it’s not compulsory, but it’s strongly advised that parents are shown the RSE educational resources that kids will see in classes. “I’d say it’s extremely foolish if you don’t,” the teacher adds. “What’s happened all over the country is parents get the complete wrong end of the stick, and then there’s absolute rubbish people are saying about what children are going to be told.”
To be clear: in Birchfield’s case, the S in RSE is a redundant one. “No sex education has ever been taught at Birchfields,” someone at the school says. “Never mind gay sex, even heterosexual sex.” The school says its curriculum doesn’t cover sexual education, only relationships education, the teaching of which is mandatory. Relationships education could be things like talking about different kinds of families — families with single parents or same-sex or heterosexual parents.
At last year’s consultation, Sajjad raised the Willa video as a point of concern. The video was shown as part of the Personal, Social Health and Economics Education (PSHE) curriculum, which RSE overlaps with. The school governors — some of whom are parent governors and others from the council — engaged with Sajjad. They decided that the video wasn’t necessary, and that they could teach about trans issues without it. So it was removed and hasn’t been shown since.
But a seed had been planted. Parents started asking about what else their children were being taught. Sajjad wanted to know how the Willa video had come to be shown to his daughter in the first place. A parents’ WhatsApp group was made in July and now has become a hive of rumour. There are 382 members of the group, which is open access to anyone with a link, so it’s likely to have non-parents too. Before long the school was flooded with complaints — 120 last year, says Sajjad — regarding what was being taught across RSE. But they also wanted access to the PHSE curriculum too.
Parents say they got no response to their complaints, and this appears to have stoked resentment. By the time this year’s RSE consultation came round, in May, those who attended say the headteacher was shouted down by parents. They wanted the school to meet with all concerned parents, to go through the RSE and PSHE curriculums and come to an agreement on what should be taught. “Something that works for everybody,” says Sajjad.
‘Nothing to do with religion’
The vast majority of students at Birchfields are from minority ethnic backgrounds, mostly Bangladeshi and Pakistani, which means that many grow up in Muslim families. Many of the senior teachers, on the other hand, do not appear to be Muslim.
It wouldn’t be wise to speculate about the cultural backgrounds of people we haven’t spoken to, but the contrast on the school’s website between the “support staff” and “lunchtime staff” (where most of the surnames appear to be South Asian and Middle Eastern in origin) and the school’s senior staff (who all have conventionally British-sounding names) is noticeable.
Data from the Department for Education confirms that the ethnic compositions of the students and staff at the school are very different. Only 2% of the pupils are classified as White British, while three-quarters are from either Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds. On the other hand, over three-quarters of teachers are not from an ethnic minority.
How exactly religion plays into this dispute is a sensitive subject — Sajjad bristles at the suggestion that his critique of the school has anything to do with his faith. “This has got nothing to do with religion,” he told us, making the point that at a school where most of the students are Muslim, of course any group of parents will likely be Muslims too. “It’s all about age appropriateness,” he says, insisting that he would be fine with his children being exposed to the material they are being taught at school when they are older.
When we ask him about the differences between the backgrounds of the senior teachers at the school compared to those of the more junior staff and the parent body, he says it makes sense to him on demographic grounds: many of the Pakistani and Bengali immigrants to this country arrived in the 1970s and few of them had the qualifications to work in UK schools. On the whole, it’s their children’s generation who have trained as teachers, meaning that many of them qualified in the past couple of decades and haven’t yet had time to rise to the senior ranks of schools.
It’s not because of any systemic racism or conspiracy that a school like Birchfields doesn’t appear to have any Muslims on its School Leadership Team, he says. And yet, this discrepancy is clearly relevant to what is playing out here, and other areas where school leaders no longer represent the neighbourhoods they serve. In fact, in the letter he sent to the school last month, Sajjad made this point explicitly, suggesting that Birchfields isn’t in tune with its parent body. "The school should be a reflection of the community it represents, at the moment, parents feel the school is not,” the letter said. “We agree that the pupils should be able to understand the world in which they are growing up however this should also consider the community it represents.”
And while he may not think religion is relevant to the story, at least some of his fellow parents appear to feel differently. We have seen screenshots from a large group chat in which parents at Birchfields discuss specific teachers at the school and suggest that they aren’t sympathetic to Muslims. On Tuesday — the day of the protest we witnessed — parents vented about one senior staff member.
“To stand at the entrance and drink a coffee with a smile, is so frustrating,” one parent wrote. “I was actually disgusted in her behaviour.”
“They do it purely just to antagonise the muslim community,” someone replied.
“She knew fully well what she was doing, as you say to Antagonise us,” wrote a parent.
This group chat is where much of the organising gets done for Concerned Parents of Birchfields Primary School Parents Unity, a group chaired by Sajjad and formed to advocate for change at the school. He says Parents Unity has around 220 members and that it came about because parents felt they were getting no response from the school about having input in the PSHE part of the curriculum.
What kind of input do they want? In his calls with us, Sajjad repeatedly came back to the notion of “age appropriateness”, particularly in relation to the Willa video. In the letter he sent to the school last month, the parents’ concerns sounded broader than that, focusing in particular on how Birchfields teaches LGBTQ+ issues. “Parents Unity would like to review all LGBTQ+ material under the Freedom of Information 2000,” the letter says. “We kindly request ALL teaching of the material to be put on hold until a solution is reached.”
When The Mill attended Tuesday’s protest, there was only one previous media report about the situation at Birchfields (the story has subsequently appeared in brief reports by the BBC website and a few other outlets) and that was on a Muslim news service called 5Pillars. The site reported that, among other things, the parents are now demanding that all LGBTQ+ material be restricted to RSE, the part of the curriculum in which the school has invited parental input.
But according to 5Pillars, the parents were also making a much more radical demand — one that virtually any school would consider unacceptable: namely that “parent representatives” should be able to “sit in on RSE/PSHE lessons to ensure the material being taught is done in a professional unbiased manner.”
What’s happening in Fallowfield is by no means the first time parents have protested a school’s curriculum in this way. In 2019, a wave of protests started in Birmingham and spread to Nottingham, until schools started receiving letters opposing LGBTQ+ related teaching from parents in Bradford, Bristol, Croydon, Ealing, Northampton and Manchester.
Claremont Primary School in Rusholme — just across Platt Fields from Birchfields — Plymouth Grove in Longsight, William Hulme Grammar School in Whalley Range and MEA Central, which is on the same street as Birchfields, were all contacted by parents saying they didn’t want their kids to be taught LGBTQ+ issues in school.
The key trigger for the Birmingham protests was an educational programme called “No Outsiders”, which promoted LGBTQ+ equality and challenged homophobia. The programme was developed by Andrew Moffat, assistant headteacher at Parkfield Primary, a small school in an area where most families are Muslim. A group of angry mothers gathered at the school gates in protest, saying the content wasn’t age-appropriate and parents should have been consulted.
The headteacher was described as a “piece of shit” and at the height of the tension, some teachers were said to have stopped eating and had become ill from the stress. Many protesters were issued letters from the city council warning them against intimidating and harassing staff, parents and children at school grounds.
A 2019 report into events in Birmingham called Challenging Hateful Extremism, by a government body called the Commission for Countering Extremism, found that religious fundamentalists had "exploited the issue to entrench social division” and "promote their belief that Western liberalism was a threat to Islam”. It was found that some of the most active protestors didn’t have children at the schools.
The protests at Parkfield Primary School lasted approximately four months, until the school opened up talks with parents — a kind of large-scale consultation that would give them a chance to have their say but which didn’t yield results. Then Birmingham City Council successfully applied for a temporary High Court order to ban any protests near school grounds. If anyone defied the order, they would face arrest. This ban was made permanent in the new academic year, with the judge ruling that what was being taught at the school had been grossly misrepresented.
In one video, one of the main organisers of the Birmingham protests, Shakheel Afsar, a skinny man dressed in a black tracksuit holding a megaphone, can be heard shouting: “Our children!” outside the school gates. “Our choice!” is the response from a group of parents holding placards. This is the same slogan we heard at the protest outside Birchfields on Tuesday, but Sajjad says there is no connection between the campaign he has been leading in Fallowfield and the wave of protests in 2019, which he says he cannot recall hearing about.
‘It’s too easy to cry wolf’
“As parents and teachers, I think we all want the same thing for our children — for them to thrive, to succeed, and to be happy in their lives,” wrote Paul Marshall, Manchester City Council's strategic director of children and education services, in a letter to parents last month. He was responding to the decision by many parents — we haven’t been able to independently verify how many — to pull their children out of school for a few days in protest at the school’s refusal to grant them a meeting about the PSHE curriculum.
But Marshall also warned parents that curriculum concerns “are not an acceptable reason for keeping your child off school and will be classed as unauthorised absence”.
When we asked the council about the situation at Birchfields, they told us:
Our primary schools have a key part to play in this and work hard to deliver a rounded curriculum, which includes relationship education, as they're required to by the DFE. Concerns have been expressed by a small number of parents about aspects of this but we're working with the school and parents to resolve the issues raised. All our children and school staff have a right to be able to attend school and to access their education without fear or interruption, and we would urge parents to work with the school and not to disrupt learning.
Despite several attempts in the past week, we have not been able to speak to Miss Offord, the headteacher at Birchfields. But a governor explains that the school’s senior leaders are reluctant to hold the meeting that Parents Unity are demanding, believing that some of the group’s demands — including the suggestion that parent representatives should sit in on lessons — are excessive.
For now, Birchfields and Parents Unity are at an impasse. During the morning school run on Thursday, parents we spoke to suggested the school, in not sharing the curriculum, had something to hide. They believe the curriculum as it stands is still age-inappropriate. “If it was age-appropriate,” one mother told us, “the kids would be able to understand it. They wouldn’t be coming back confused.” Not just confused, interjected another parent, but “traumatised”.
One of the issues in disputes like this is that parents generally don’t have a full picture of what their children are being taught. They have to rely on what their children tell them, or what they have heard via a group chat from other parents about what their children have told them.
Another problem, according to someone connected to the school, is that what gets discussed in classes is not as predictable as the protesting parents might think. Children ask questions and the teacher is obliged to answer them. The shifting nature of these lessons means certain topics can spring up that were never intended to, but children will still go home to their parents and describe it as “what I learned at school today”.
Tuesday’s angry protest significantly raised the stakes in what was previously a relatively slow-burning dispute. Sajjad has received a letter informing him that he is banned from entering the school grounds. He denies allegations of intimidation or acting in an aggressive manner towards staff. “The school have demonised me and made me out to all the staff to be a monster,” he told us.
We have also learned that the police were called on Sajjad last month. He was outside the school after hours while a small group of parents met with the school’s headteacher and a governor. A letter sent by Parents Unity said members of the group (Sajjad and some others) were denied access to the meeting. Others remember Sajjad as an intimidating presence, hence the phone call to the police.
Sajjad says he was there because the parents who were going into the meeting didn’t speak English as a first language and wanted Parent Unity members present to help articulate their points. But after not being let into the school, they waited outside so the parents could come out and consult with them if they wanted, and during this time someone called the police.
When we asked Greater Manchester Police, they confirmed there had been a report. However, Sajjad was not arrested and he says he is currently asking for the logs to prove that no instance of intimidation was recorded.
When we ask Sajjad about Tuesday’s protest, at which parents shouted “shame on you” at school staff as they left to home from work, he says he wasn’t at that particular protest — he was only at the one in the morning. He did say, however, that a local councillor and teacher present in the morning “stood there smirking at parents”, before saying: “if you’re going to patronise and antagonise parents, it’s too easy to cry wolf.”
The local councillor in question is Rabnawaz Akbar, who represents Rusholme and sits on the school’s board of governors (he is also a high-ranking figure at Manchester City Council as the executive member for finance). In the Parents Unity WhatsApp group yesterday, members discussed holding a protest outside Akbar’s house. “I still think going outside Rab Nawaz’s home would impact this situation heavily in a positive way,” said one parent.
“He’d start playing victim and say we’re bullying him and then he and the media will spin making us look bad,” cautioned another parent.
“Rabnawaz needs to stop being a puppet,” someone else wrote. “And stand up for what’s right in the eyes of us Muslims especially.”
If those messages are revealing of the way religion plays into this dispute, they might also suggest how distrustful the parents have become about the council. Last month, Parents Unity held their meetings at the Pakistani Community Centre, in Longsight, but Sajjad says the school got wind of this and asked the council, who own the building, to have the group’s booking cancelled so they couldn’t meet.
A staff member at the Community Centre confirms that the council sent a letter advising that they review their bookings policy and cancel this meeting, on the grounds that “the council doesn’t support bookings in its own venues that are in conflict with its own policy on diversity and equality”. The group managed to retain their booking for the first meeting, but a second planned for two weeks after was successfully cancelled. Sajjad had to book a private space somewhere else, only telling parents the location one hour before the meeting was set to start. The council did not deny this claim.
Yesterday, parents received a letter from the school which said that the protests and other recent events “have had a traumatic impact on children, staff, and visitors to the school”. And that they would be supporting staff to report any instances of abuse, or “behaviours that leave them feeling intimidated, harassed or fearful.”
In a statement to The Mill, a spokesperson sounded more conciliatory. “Following consultation with parents we have never taught sex education at Birchfields Primary,” they said. “We have however been successfully teaching relationship education in our school for some time and are proud of the impact this has on us being a welcoming and inclusive school where children thrive and are happy. Some parents have recently expressed concern about the content of this curriculum, which is set by the DFE, and we're working closely with parents to address the issues raised.”
Now that Sajjad has been barred from entering school grounds, he drops his daughters off at a different entrance to the other kids. He has also distanced himself from Parents Unity, as he feels he has become a target and a distraction from its cause.
On the Parents Unity WhatsApp yesterday, a poll appeared, canvassing enthusiasm for a further protest on Monday. At the time of writing, there still hasn’t been a “no” vote. As the yes votes multiplied, one parent replied: “let them ban us all.”
This article has been edited to amend one error. In the original version, we said that protests began outside Anderton Park Primary school in Birmingham after the headteacher introduced the No Outsiders programme to the school curriculum. This has been corrected to Parkfield Primary School. We regret the error.