How to lead a successful RSE consultation with parents

Headteachers fear that the obligation to consult parents about their school’s policy for teaching relationships education will create tensions and anxiety for all involved. Grainne Hallahan looks at how they can meet their obligations with as little unrest as possible
14th February 2020, 12:04am
Don't Get Caught In The Parent Trap
Grainne Hallahan


How to lead a successful RSE consultation with parents

The parents are gathered for their sex talk. Everyone knew it was coming, but it's still awkward. Some have small slips of paper with the point they want to make scribbled upon it - they're sat poised on the front row. Some have decided to listen and watch, and only speak up if they really have to. Some are hovering at the back, hoping it's over quickly so they can go back to pretending all this sex stuff doesn't exist.

Outside the doors to the hall, the headteacher waits, eyeing the crowd. She knows what she wants to say, knows what she wants to do, but also knows that the next hour is crucial to achieving her aims: from September, what schools teach with regards to relationships education in primary, and relationships and sex education in secondary, has to not just be communicated to parents but be formed in consultation with them.

And that is causing many headteachers a considerable amount of anxiety.

One headteacher, who has been through the process already - and who leads a primary school in the South of England - paints a frightening picture: "The meeting was deeply unpleasant and uncomfortable for staff. The level of prejudice was shocking for those who have not experienced it before."

He added that headteachers need to take any meetings they hold very seriously and ensure personal involvement.

"Leaders should be aware that this is not something that should be left to PSHE coordinators or tackled without the support of as many staff as possible being present. There was no way to reason with the views of some parents."

It's likely an extreme example, but many headteachers fear any consultation meetings will become tempestuous, unmanageable and a clash of beliefs. What's more, the consultation process is ill-defined and confusing: how do you reasonably take into consideration the views of 600 people when those views are likely to be hugely variable and many of them directly opposing? How do you do the best for the children while respecting the wishes of parents? How do you teach relationships and sex education (RSE) with so many voices trying to dictate the way?

To help, we begin this special issue by trying to find out what, exactly, "consultation" means and how best to handle the process.

What 'consultation' means

The government's decision to amend its guidance for RSE was always going to be contentious. Making relationships education compulsory for all primary schools and RSE compulsory in all secondary schools, as well as updating guidance to include topics some parents may find troubling, attracted criticism from the moment that Justine Greening, then education secretary, first proposed it.

Parents have very different ideas about when sex education should begin, how much should be conveyed at certain ages, how much detail should be covered at all and about the content itself. The government's decision to take the power of those choices away from parents was a big one, even if some of those parents welcome the fact they will not have to do "the talk" themselves.

The government then upped the stakes by denying parents the right to withdraw from relationship education in primary and secondary, and stating that parents have no right to withdraw their children from sex education if the students wish to opt in and are within three terms of their 16th birthday.

So, is it any surprise that the government decided to throw parents a lifeline in return? By stating that schools have a requirement to consult with parents when drawing up the RSE policy document (and to provide examples of resources), they have seemingly handed back some of the power and headed off any protests.

That policy document has to define relationships education (primary) or RSE (secondary), "set out" the subject content, explain how the subject will be assessed and evaluated and explain about rights to withdraw a child.

But what actually does the guidance mean by "consult" with parents?

Former education secretary Damian Hinds was very clear in his letter to Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, that "consultation does not provide a parental veto on curriculum content". This is reiterated in the Department for Education's Engaging parents with relationships education policy document.

This guidance aims to set out what consultation looks like, but it does so in broad brushstrokes. A lot of the decisions are left to schools over how far and in which ways parents are consulted - the government seems naive as to the level of debate it expects and the issues that the flexibility given to schools could create for headteachers. For example, parents could compare notes to claim one school was more consultative than another.

In theory, "consult" could mean simply writing to parents to announce that the policy was being written and asking for feedback, reading that feedback, and then writing the policy and sticking the policy document on their website, making it available for anyone who requests it. Or it could mean in-depth focus groups and extensive discussions, with a truly collaborative final product.

Parent-teacher organisation Parentkind advises schools against adopting the former approach. It says that if schools only pay lip service to the consultation process, they'll find their workload decreased in the short term but increased in the long term.

If you consult more fully, "you get those issues out in the forefront, and you're actually creating less work than just releasing the policy document, because you're going to probably get antagonism later anyway", says Kerry-Jane Packman, development and membership director at Parentkind.

"So, if you deal with any problems up front, it's open and honest, and it gives you a chance to tackle the questions."

If you take that advice and aim to make consultation meaningful, what is the best way to do that and what are the potential missteps to look out for?

1. Be prepared

Parents already have an opinion on sex and relationships education. They come with historic views and possibly a great deal of misinformation from media sources. Headlines such as "Children as young as SIX are to be given compulsory self-touching lessons that critics say are sexualising youngsters" are forcing parents to have viewpoints they may not have had previously.

One headteacher, whose school took part in the new RSE trial, spoke anonymously with Tes, describing how he felt overwhelmed by the level of influence the stories in the press about the new RSE guidelines had over the parents of his students. This headteacher knew his community well, he thought. He had expected only a small minority to offer any resistance to some aspects of the school's new RSE curriculum.

It turns out he was wrong. He attempted to take a business-as-usual approach, basing his strategy on his previous experiences of consulting with parents and their responses to RSE issues. Every year, the school informs parents of their Year 6 classwork involving LGBT+ topics.

"We always had maybe one or two complaints, and always along the lines of 'I don't want my child told that gay is normal' or 'I don't want my child to be spoken to about that'," recalls the headteacher. "But that was only one out of 286 parents. So we expected some kind of kickback from the meeting, but we didn't expect it in the numbers that we got."

As a consequence of underestimating the misinformation the parents were going to come armed with, the consultation meeting was dominated by objections to content that simply didn't exist in the school's policy.

The headteacher recalls how it began badly, and then continued with more of the same.

"Literally the first question was: 'Why are you going to teach gay sex to my Year 1 child?'" he says.

Headteachers should expect these kinds of problems to play out across England, say experts who have been surveying the opinions of parents on the changes to the RSE policy.

"Misinterpretation of school communications [is a big source of conflict]," says Packman. "And we hear from schools that the biggest area where we see conflict is around the cultural and religious element."

How do you get ahead of the misinformation? First, you have to know what is out there and what the common misconceptions are. This may mean looking at social media groups, parenting forums and generally keeping an eye on how the new guidelines are being reported.

Each community will be different, so it is important to have open communication channels before the start of any consultation to get a sense of potential trigger points in your community.

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson knows just how awful the disruption can be when misinformation spreads throughout a community. The Tes person of the year and Birmingham primary school headteacher was at the centre of high-profile protests against the teaching of LGBT+ content and went to court three times to remove protesters from outside her school.

Hewitt-Clarkson describes what her parents were reading online as "horror stories", and believes it was the new RSE guidelines that had "fuelled some of the concerns" from parents regarding what their children were being taught in school.

But it wasn't the RSE content that originally caused the problems; it was the way the school was teaching the idea of equality. Hewitt-Clarkson found that the two different topics were being conflated.

In order to deal with this, Hewitt-Clarkson took some steps in a technological direction. "We put a video on our website explaining, in a very simple way, the differences between teaching equalities (which everybody has to do) and then the new RSE curriculum, because there are similarities but there are also differences."

For a successful parent consultation process, these aren't the only differences that experts think schools need to be clarifying. RSE experts say schools should also be making it clear what the difference is between relationship education (compulsory) and sex education (optional at primary, compulsory at secondary).

"There's a need for more clarity around [what is] mandatory and non-mandatory," says Packman. "Schools' communications [must be] clear about the difference between relationship education and sex education, and not putting them all together."

You also need to ensure that you don't fall into the trap of grouping parents along religious or other lines, and expecting a certain response from them. These mistakes can be made with the best intentions but you need to avoid them as far as possible.

"It [can be] a bit of a false label," says Hewitt-Clarkson. "Because even though they may share many characteristics - for example, faith - it doesn't mean to say they would all believe exactly the same thing for everything."

Hewitt-Clarkson suggests school leaders think about who leads the consultation process to ensure the message taken away isn't that they're just being dictated to.

"I purposely didn't lead [all of the process]. I asked two of my very devout Muslim staff and a devout Christian member of staff to lead those meetings so that it wasn't seen to be a top-down talk of 'this is what we do'."

Forewarned is forearmed, so try to gather an informal baseline of where your parents are at before you begin the formal consultation.

2. What should 'consultation' look like?

When schools need to talk to parents en masse, they usually do it in two ways: a newsletter or a big meeting. For something like a consultation on the new guidance, a meeting would usually be the go-to option.

If you have a meeting in mind, you need to be a little more cautious than you would be normally. Consulting parents about their opinions of the RSE policy and curriculum is never going to be the same as consulting on changing the lunch menu or how to develop your playground. Also, a big meeting is never going to feel collaborative; instead, it's going to feel like being lectured to: "Here's what we want to do - do you have a problem with it?"

Peter Fonagy, head of the division of psychology and language sciences at University College London (UCL) and chief executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, believes that good consultation needs meaningful relationships.

"By consulting people in a meaningful way, we empower them - we give them agency and relative control of their lives. This generates greater openness and reduces the need we might feel for self-protection," he explains. "If a person feels recognised as an individual, which meaningful consultation achieves, they will trust the communication more. This means they will be more ready to listen to points of view which may be different from the ones they hold, and with greater openness."

Essentially, you may think that "just tell 'em" limits the risk of complaints and issues but, in fact, the opposite is likely to be true.

Ah, you might say, but parents don't engage with the school. On this issue, the evidence suggests they will. A Parentkind survey found that 86 per cent of parents felt it was important that their child's school consulted them on how it teaches RSE.

"They want to be consulted and informed … you have to listen to parents, you have to understand what their needs are. Some you might never be able to address, but if they feel they've been listened to, and [the school] has expressed its view, then that is half the battle," says Packham.

But if a big meeting is out, how best should schools handle the consultation process? Size matters, says one primary head, who spoke to Tes about her experience of consulting in preparation for their new RSE policy. She discovered from running large, open-to-all consultation meetings that this set-up was not conducive to holding difficult conversations. It saved her time in the short term, but the cost in the long term wasn't worth it.

Instead, she recommends leaders try running smaller meetings for separate key stages during their consultation process.

"Try presenting the content to parents from different year groups: so, do Year 1 and 2 parents together, and focus in on what the RSE policy looks like for Year 1 and 2. And then do a separate meeting for Year 3 and 4, and then again for Year 5 and 6."

Melissa Heppell, headteacher at Atlantic Academy in Portland, Dorset, agrees that smaller meetings are better but also suggests the success of the meeting will be found in the pre-meeting information.

"The absolute key to success is the communication that happens before the meeting," says Heppell. "The first place parents hear about changes in school can't be en masse. You've got their most valuable asset in school - you've got their children. They're going to worry and have questions."

Hewitt-Clarkson also warns that in these consultation meetings, all parties must be on the same page. "Everybody needs to understand what the word 'consult' means," she says. "It means talk things through and see each other's points of view. Through sharing those opinions, everybody understands and everybody's going to be completely clear about how we will be teaching RSE."

So what happens if parents do contest what you propose? Nick Soar, executive principal at the Harris Federation, says you should try to head off any flashpoints before the meeting.

"Work with the heads of year or parental engagement workers before the consultation meeting to work privately with family situations or flash-points that may occur," he says. "So, in the main, the senior team often have booked meetings on the night with parents who may be upset or have challenging issues to deal with themselves so there is space and time reserved for them to allow us to hear them. A mass audience isn't the place for individual or complex discussion, but equally we do not wish to silence parents."

But if it does kick off in the meeting? As much as you can plan for an open and welcoming discussion, it's only realistic to also expect some confrontation, says Hewitt-Clarkson. She suggests hearing them out but only to an extent. "I'd give them time to say what they wanted to say, and I would ask them clarifying questions - not just for their benefit, but because I would really want to understand their point of view," she says.

But she would recommend being ready to draw a line - you can listen, but you must also point out when a parent has gone too far.

"If they said something that is contrary to British law, or discriminatory, such as 'being gay is an abomination', then you can't just let that go. You're a public servant. Instead, I would explore where it came from - why are they saying what they're saying? I would give a comparison and relate it back to themselves: 'It is not OK to make a judgement about people with your background or religion based on a stereotype, just as it isn't OK to make judgements about gay people'. Discrimination has many threads, and it isn't just about equality for your own interests."

Soar adds that de-escalating is a must.

"There is always a way to de-escalate a discussion. Some parents have been let down themselves as children and they expect authority and schools to be another institution that will also let them down. There is in some people a feeling that the only way to be heard is to shout or to complain. That isn't true - but part of the approach is to realise as a leader that kindness is more important than winning an argument - certainly in the moment. You can win the battle later."

For example, you can defer persistent parents to a meeting at a later date, promising to discuss it more fully in private. Hewitt-Clarkson recommends putting in place an open-door policy so parents can come in and discuss things informally. "We ran these informally in the morning or after school, and we had a number of meetings - just as many as we could, really, so that people could carry on asking questions and talking to us."

How long should consultation last? The DfE guidance, unhelpfully, just states it should not go on "in perpetuity" - parents will likely have different views on when and end point should be. Schools have been left to make the call.

3. Broaden the consultation beyond parents

Once you have talked to the parents, you may want to do anything you can to avoid any other complicating factors. However, ignore the views of other stakeholder groups at your peril, the experts say, because their inclusion can improve the impact of your RSE curriculum.

Lucy Emmerson, from the Sex Education Forum, predicts that too many people will rush this part of the process.

"What I'm noticing from schools at the moment is that people are very anxious to get to the point of updating the policy. And sometimes they just want to get through parent consultation and hope that no one's going to say anything."

But if you leave out your students, governors and wider stakeholders (such as religious leaders), she says, you risk making them feel excluded.

'If you don't design it in a discursive way, people can feel that they haven't had a genuine opportunity to be heard."

A school might accept the views of adult stakeholders, but what about students?

Emmerson believes including students in the RSE consultation process will ensure more meaningful and purposeful conversations with parents.

She suggests collecting transcripts of anonymised conversations you've had with students about their experience of sex and relationships education, or conducting surveys with past year groups on what they've learned. This allows students to feel included and parents to have an insight into what teenagers want to learn.

4. Feedback

Once your policy document is written, you might think that the process has come to an end. However, rush this final stage at your peril, as this last step in the process holds more sway than you might think.

Just publishing the policy on your website as required by law is unlikely to be a good option. "When you leave parents in the dark at the end of a consultation process, you end up with a lot of fear. And when you have fear, you have pushback," says Heppell.

"There has to be communication at the end of the process."

Soar recommends sending the policy in advance to those most likely to be upset about the final content. "One cannot take everyone through everything and not everyone can be a winner: but if people can see that schools consulted in good faith and showing willing that goes a long way," he says.

Soar suggests making it explicit where changes have been made as a result of the consultation. "When policies are revised, best practice is to highlight or to place a line next to the changed wording or the added topic," he explains.

The DfE says schools should "explain" their decisions, but the good news is that, if complaints still occur, the DfE has made it clear that protests or intimidation of staff have "no place" in the process - government support should be swift (in theory).

So, is hostility after publication inevitable? Perhaps. After all, it is impossible to please all your parents and meet everyone's needs on an issue such as RSE.

But Heppell feels that if you allow parents to feel heard, then you've done as much as you can do. "Parents want to know if they have something to say, that they will be heard," she says.

"When you stop listening, you'll end up with parents who challenge everything."

Grainne Hallahan is a senior content writer at Tes. She tweets @heymrshallahan

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline "Don't get caught in the parent trap"

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