Reporter's take: Why ministers are letting schools down over LGBT protests

Schools need to be given unequivocal government backing over the teaching of LGBT relationships

John Roberts

Schools need to be given a stronger message of support on LGBT teaching

When Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the headteacher of Anderton Park Primary finished speaking at the NAHT headteachers' union conference this month, her colleagues rose to applaud her.

Her Birmingham school is at the heart of the protracted and increasingly heated protests about pupils being taught about LGBT relationships.

She left the conference stage with the full support of school leaders and unanimous backing for her plan to ensure more is done to support schools to carry out their equality duties.

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But with escalating protests forcing the school to close early last week for half-term, are schools like Anderton Park getting enough support from policymakers in government?

Ms Hewitt-Clarkson told the NAHT that the Department for Education's own information for the public on relationships education was making the situation worse and fuelling protests.

She highlighted a "frequently asked questions" section on the department’s website about compulsory relationships education, which says there is "no specific requirement" for primary schools to teach LGBT content.

Ms Hewitt-Clarkson said this is at odds with the government’s own guidance for primary schools. It states that primary pupils should know that "stable, caring relationships, which may be of different types, are at the heart of happy families".

The primary section also says: "Teaching about families requires sensitive and well-judged teaching based on knowledge of pupils and their circumstances.

"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.)"

But anyone reading the DfE's FAQs would conclude that teaching this is entirely down to a headteacher's discretion – putting school leaders rather than ministers at the heart of any dispute. 

DfE putting ball in schools' court

This is not the first time that the government appears to have passed the buck on making a final decision in this contentious area of the curriculum. 

Earlier this year, the Department for Education’s new guidance on how schools should teach teenagers about sex said that parents could choose to opt their child out of Relationship and Sex Education up to age 15 and that, "except in exceptional circumstances”, the school should let them.

By leaving that question of whether schools should be allowed to go against parents’ wishes so open to interpretation, the DfE has pushed the pressure for making a call on such a controversial issue back on to heads.

Now, this tension is re-emerging over LGBT content in primary schools.

The growing problem for Ms Hewitt-Clarkson and other heads in her position is the DfE is continuing to put the ball back into schools' court over educating children about same-sex couples and families.

When education secretary Damian Hinds put out a statement on the issue last week, Anderton Park had already been forced to close. 

He rightly said that it was unacceptable for children to miss education because of the threat of protests and said that, in the worst cases, these can be hijacked by individuals with a vested interest and no links to the school.

But wasn't he again punting responsibility about deciding on the teaching about LGBT relationships back to schools when he said:  “I support and trust head teachers to make decisions in the interests of their pupils”?

In the past, Mr Hinds has written to heads to assure them that parents cannot veto lessons.

However, there is surely a case to be made that the government now needs to be saying something much stronger to the nation at large.

The Equality Act 2010 makes clear that schools have a duty to promote equality for people who have a protected characteristic.

And the DfE’s own guidance says primary school children should learn about different types of families including LGBT.

So why isn't the government giving schools clearer, unequivocal backing? Instead of saying that the decision rests with heads, why isn't Mr Hinds making it clear that this is something schools have to do?

As Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said a few months ago, youngsters should know that "there are families that have two mummies or two daddies".

The truth is, of course, that children already know this because of their own families or those of their friends and peers. (And I think as a society we sometimes forget that children are far less afraid of reality than adults can be.)

When it is said by some that children are too young to learn about LGBT identities, it feels doubly offensive to both people who are LGBT and to the children themselves.

National political battle

Nationally, these protests show we are falling short on this issue.

The government is rightly making relationship education compulsory in primary schools and RSE in secondary school. But it is at the school gates and not in Westminster that this is now being played out.

There is a growing sense that this is not just about a community of parents objecting to a school lesson. The LGBT protests are becoming a national political battle in which a school’s right and duty to promote equality and tolerance is coming under pressure.

In such a situation it should not be school staff facing the flack or providing political leadership.

The government has to do more to support them and to send the message that these schools are not only in the right but that they are acting in line with the reforms that the government is itself bringing in.

The law is unequivocal about the importance of promoting and protecting equality in school.

Politicians’ statements must be, too. Otherwise, this situation is going to get worse – both for the schools in the firing line and for the country as a whole.




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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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