Today and tomorrow, more than 1,000 school leaders will gather in Birmingham for the annual Inspiring Leadership conference.
NAHT has been a proud supporter of this conference for many years. We live in a world of rapid change and instant decision-making, so this conference is one of the few precious moments in the calendar where leaders can take some time to pause and reflect.
That may feel like a luxury, but it’s not. It’s essential.
As we gather in Birmingham, many of us will be thinking about the small number of schools a couple of miles down the road from the convention centre that have found themselves at the centre of high-profile protests against the teaching of equality and diversity.
Protesters have argued that this learning should not happen in primary schools and that parents should be able to withdraw their children from it.
Education secretary Damian Hinds, the head of Birmingham City Council, the head of the police in Birmingham and now the schools standards minister Nick Gibb have all backed NAHT’s calls for these protests to stop.
The High Court has banned protesters from the streets around Anderton Park Primary, and when that decision comes up for review on Monday, I hope and expect that the ban will be lengthened so that children can be spared the intimidating experience of walking past noisy and intolerant adults on their way to school.
The truth is, without meaning to, the government has put school leaders in an extremely difficult position. They and their staff have had to endure threats against their careers and their personal safety.
The protests must stop. And as Tes has reported, the government has to do more to support schools and to send the message that they are not only in the right but that they are acting in line with the reforms that the government is itself bringing in.
On Tuesday next week, I will be chairing an NAHT briefing in Westminster. Our aim is to share our concerns with MPs and make sure that they are well aware of the issues at play.
Among our speakers will be David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Andrew Moffat, the deputy headteacher of Parkfield Primary School and Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the headteacher at Anderton Park Primary School. Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for the North West, who offered to mediate between protesters and schools, will join via a video link.
At our event, as well as hearing first-hand from some of the people at the centre of this situation, we’ll share a briefing document for MPs. The briefing covers schools’ duties under the Equality Act.
We’ll talk about the current expectations and how these will change once sex and relationships education (SRE) becomes compulsory for all primary children from 2020.
The government is encouraging schools to adopt the new regulations from September 2019, but I have concerns that some will think twice about doing this unless the government issues immediate, clear and public assurances in three key areas.
To start with, the government must make it clear that relationships education in primary schools must be inclusive of all protected characteristics and treat the different types of relationships in our society equally, reflecting their equal status under the law and so promoting tolerance and respect for diversity.
Following on from this, we need a clear message that relationships education in all schools will include LGBT+ content as set out in the statutory guidance that has already been published.
In addition to that guidance, the Department for Education has said: “Primary schools are enabled and encouraged to cover LGBT content if they consider it age appropriate to do so”, which is not helpful to school leaders. NAHT believes that the correct wording should be: “Primary schools are enabled and encouraged to cover LGBT+ content when they consider it age appropriate to do so”.
Finally, school leaders and their teams should receive the full support of the government and the full protection of the relevant authorities when delivering relationships education and fulfilling their responsibilities under the Equality Act.
I’m sure these issues will be a hot topic of conversation during the break-out sessions in between the wide array of speakers at Inspiring Leadership.
While we pause and reflect on the challenges of modern leadership, I am sure that there will be plenty of solidarity for leaders such as Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson and Andrew Moffat.
Paul Whiteman is the general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union