For centuries, education has been a bit of a battleground. Long ago, the Jesuits, recognising just how powerful a tool education could be, apparently said “Give dme a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Hence the question of who educates children, and how they do it, has always had the potential for great controversy. The Dutch even had a schools war.
Over the years, parents have often been in disagreement with teachers about what their children are being taught, teachers have often been in disagreement with school authorities, and school authorities (who, in past centuries, were often religious bodies) have been in disagreement with parents. Naturally, two of these groups have often formed an alliance the third.
Which brings us to Section 28, one of the most emotive educational battlegrounds in recent British history. The problem arose in the 1980s because several people were concerned that some teachers and school authorities were involved in teaching children that homosexual behaviour was normal and harmless - a proposition that many parents did not wish their children to be taught. The state, in the form of central government, felt that such parents had a legitimate grievance, and stepped in by passing legislation.
That legislation said:
A local authority shall not -What this actually meant was a matter of some debate. The government issued a statement which said “Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors, nor of teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality,” which came as a bit of a surprise to some, who hoped that it would affect the activities of school governors and teachers.
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
So - what is a libertarian to make of section 28? It seems to me that there are five questions to be asked.
1) Libertarians believe that central government should not curb the freedom local government, unless local government is using its freedom to infringe the freedom of individuals. Did this legislation do so? It seems to me that central government was definitely curbing the freedom of local government. But was it merely stopping local government from doing something that local government should not have been doing?
2) Libertarians believe that central government should not curb the freedom of schools and teachers. Did this legislation do so? It seems to me that the answer is “probably not.”
3) Libertarians believe that central and local government should not take and use tax-payers’ money except for the defence of individuals and their property. Is the promotion of homosexuality a legitimate use of tax-payers money? Here, much depends on how one defines “promotion of homosexuality”, but I think that the answer is “No - the promotion of homosexuality is not the business of government.”
4) Libertarians believe that the education of children is basically a matter for their parents, rather than for state. Was Section 28 merely supporting the right of parents? The answer to that might be “yes.” Parents were never likely to be asked by local authorities (or local authority schools) what they wanted. (And what if parents wanted different things?) But since the government declared that Section 28 did not affect the activities of school governors or teachers, it did not actually affect the balance of power between schools and parents.
5) Libertarians believe that laws, particularly prohibitions, should only be passed when necessary - so was this legislation really necessary? The answer is that while it was not necessary, it was, broadly right in that it was designed to prevent a branch of the state from using its powers (with regard to the education of children, and to the spending of taxpayers’ money) in a way that libertarians would consider improper.
In other words, Section 28 did not actually say “You shall not teach that homosexual behaviour is normal and harmless.” But even if it had, it would have given schools (and teachers) three options. They could either teach that it was abnormal and / or harmful. Or they could teach that it existed, but make no value judgement. Or they could simply not mention homosexual behaviour in the course of lessons. (The latter was the course of action taken by the schools that I attended in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, nothing much was said about the rights and wrongs of any forms of sexual behaviour, even in English classes.) Which means that Section 28 gave schools and teachers far more freedom than Nick Clegg’s proposals to make it mandatory for maintained schools to teach that homosexual behaviour is normal and harmless.
I’m left wondering what all the fuss with regard to Section 28 was about. It was, it seems to me, neither what its friends hoped nor its enemies feared. It was, from a libertarian point of view, hardly a terrible piece of legislation. But it did nothing to take power over education away from the state and hand it back to parents, and it did nothing to stop tax-payers’ money being spent on questionable projects.
And as such, it must be viewed as a waste of time - a mere symbol for culture warriors to get worked up about.