As the leader of a school or college, you have to listen to parents. They are your community, and you need their cooperation and support. You may not always agree with them, but then you have to sit down, explain, discuss and find a way forward.
That is never easy, but I would imagine it is particularly difficult for a number of schools in Birmingham faced with concerns by parents over the teaching of LGBT rights.
That is why it was a shame to see the comments made by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner following reports of schools suspending a programme called No Outsiders while they endeavour to reach an agreement with parents.
“These reports that schools have stopped teaching LGBT rights are incredibly alarming,” she said. “There is not only a moral imperative to ensure that all young children receive LGBT-inclusive education, there is a legal requirement, too, and schools must comply with the Equalities Act.”
How must this make the staff feel at the schools in Birmingham that are wrestling with this incredibly sensitive and tricky situation?
In the eye of the storm, in particular, is Parkfield Community School, where parents held weekly protests outside the gates until the school said it would not resume the No Outsiders lessons until a resolution is reached.
Protests over LGBT relationships education
Given that Parkfield Community School has clearly been a standard bearer in promoting inclusion, diversity and equality, it seems rather unfair that it is now being lectured by Ms Rayner. The school seems to me to be taking a perfectly sensible course of action by pausing and working with parents to find a way through this difficult terrain.
One would hope that the parents involved in the protests might come to see that the No Outsiders programme is something to be supported rather than feared. There is a good video on YouTube which gives a flavour of its approach and resources.
This friendly and accessible programme teaches about diversity and difference, and how we can all get along together. In terms of LGBT, it highlights the fact that there are different types of families, and that some children may have two mums or two dads. These are simple, uplifting messages which value every individual and every community.
But, of course, I am addressing an audience through this column in Tes which, I would hazard a guess, probably agrees with those sentiments. The bigger challenge is how to persuade those who view this sort of teaching with suspicion.
And many school leaders are likely to find themselves having to do that persuading over the next few years with the introduction of the government’s new relationships and sex education (RSE) programme.
ASCL had a taste of the shape of things to come in the run-up to our annual conference in Birmingham last week with the circulation of a video online by a Christian group encouraging campaigners to stage an anti-RSE protest outside our venue.
This group has formed the view that the relationships education programme envisaged for primary schools contains “LGBT propaganda”.
Now we could get angry about this sort of thing, fling around a few labels and make ourselves feel better. Or we could explain, calmly and rationally, what the guidance on relationships education in primary school actually says. Here it is:
“Families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. (Families can include, for example, single-parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers amongst other structures.) Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances and needs, to reflect sensitively that some children may have a different structure of support around them; e.g., looked-after children or young carers.”
I may be accused of naivety but there is surely nothing in this that should cause offence to anyone, no matter what their beliefs. It seems to me no more than a desire to reflect the reality of the society in which we live and to encourage people to be kind to one another.
And this is how we will win the argument; not through sound and fury, but by taking the heat out of the debate and relaying the facts in a measured and respectful manner. We need to bring people with us; to have a constructive dialogue. I have a feeling that schools will naturally do so. I am not so sure about others who are in the business of voicing opinions.
Our age is characterised by an excess of splenetic rhetoric. This issue is too important to be derailed by soundbites and rows. That’s why more time spent listening matters so much.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders