`A lot of parents were angry, so we called the police'

24th October 2014 at 01:00
Headteacher speaks out on row over anti-homophobia lessons

Jamie Barry's description of the past few weeks as "difficult" is something of an understatement.

Earlier this month, police were called to the Birmingham primary where he is headteacher after a group of angry parents subjected him to an aggressive personal attack. An official from his union has said that it "appears to be a hate crime".

Now, speaking publicly for the first time since the incident, Mr Barry tells TES that the school will not back down on implementing the anti-homophobia lessons at the centre of the row. But he warns that schools need greater backing from the authorities if they are to successfully educate children about equality.

"Lots of parents think their children come to school to learn how to read and write," he says. "Some parents don't understand the wider curriculum and all the other things that come with it.

"This won't just be happening [here], it will be happening at lots of schools around the country and I think that there is some work for local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education to do with helping parents to understand the work that their children will be covering."

Welford Primary School decided to introduce the Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools (Chips) programme after the institution became one of 21 Birmingham schools to receive an emergency Ofsted inspection, part of inquiries into the alleged "Trojan Horse" Islamic fundamentalist takeover plot.

The watchdog gave the primary, in the Handsworth area of the city, a largely clean bill of health but reported that "some pupils lack some confidence in discussing different types of families and relationships".

Mr Barry says the governors anticipated that "some parents would be unhappy" about their chosen solution, but they did not foresee the full level of opposition.

"We know that there are community views, whether it is religious views or cultural views, that don't agree with the act of homosexuality," he says. "But we were trying to be really clear with our parents that this isn't a scheme of work about homosexuality. It is about challenging discrimination and celebrating diversity."

Elly Barnes, the former music teacher behind Chips, says the scheme, backed by Birmingham City Council, includes 21 books that introduce the concept that "some families have two mums and some families have two dads".

"There is one called King and King where the queen decides the prince has to get married," she tells TES. "He doesn't fancy any of the princesses but one of the princesses brings along her brother. He says, `What a wonderful prince', and they fall in love and they get married."

The level of resistance among Welford parents became clear when more than 100 turned up to a school forum meeting that would usually attract no more than 20.

As the meeting progressed, senior staff decided to call for outside help. "We knew there were a lot of parents with a lot of anger and we felt that it might help to have some police there in case it did escalate even further," Mr Barry says. "I removed myself from the situation because of the anger and the personal remarks which were made towards me."

Anxious to move on, Mr Barry will not give any more detail about what happened except to say that the behaviour was "wholly inappropriate".

"It wasn't all of the parents that arrived that caused the problem," he stresses. "It was a minority, a core group. But obviously, with 100 people in the room, you can imagine it became loud and heated and that was why the police were called."

Ms Barnes, who has worked with around 70 primaries on Chips, says there is "very little parental opposition" in most schools and it is teachers' often unnecessary fears - "they are very, very scared of parents' reactions" - that are the bigger problem. But she also concedes that the situation at Welford was not unusual.

Rob Kelsall, an official for the NAHT headteachers' union, has said that the primary is one of several schools included in the Trojan Horse investigations that are still facing a "tirade" from "parent activists".

Mr Barry plays down the Trojan Horse link. "For us it is not about Muslim hardliners or anything like that," he says, explaining that the objectors come from "a range of religions and some of no religion at all".

The headteacher adds that part of the problem is parents assuming that they can withdraw their children from Chips, as they can with sex and relationships education. But no such right exists.

"The government needs to think about that. If they want this equality and they want schools to do this work then how are they going to support us to deliver it without the constant requests to withdraw children?"

His position is backed by Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary. "Schools are on the front line of implementing policy, which makes them very vulnerable when that policy is controversial," he says. "When a headteacher gets into trouble, they need to be clear that they have the full backing of central and local government. These situations are unacceptable."

And Mr Barry is standing firm. "We are not going to change our minds on this," he says. "It is very difficult to say what can we do to make people comfortable, because some people will hold these views strongly and that is their view. I don't know that there is an easy answer."

`There is always a way forward'

Michael Reiss, a professor of science education at the University of London's Institute of Education and a specialist in sex education, says it is important for schools to head off problems by informing parents before covering potentially controversial topics in lessons.

"Any new teaching which it is thought might be surprising or unwelcome to a significant proportion of parents should be shared with parents in advance of teaching," he says.

"This is very standard practice with sex education teaching at both primary and secondary schools. In my experience, in the great majority of cases parents are hugely reassured, because what they find is that the materials are appropriately introduced by teaching staff who are nearly always teachers in whom they have confidence.

"But it also allows teachers to realise how strongly some parents may feel about particular issues and that allows them to shift their teaching approach accordingly."

Asked what a school should do if parents are unhappy about an aspect of the curriculum that cannot be left out, Professor Reiss says: "These things are never a matter of you do it or you don't do it. You can nearly always, by discussion, come to something that everybody is reasonably happy about.

"The general answer is there is always a way forward but one might not be able to use the full range of materials."

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