No-one can have failed to notice the recent media frenzy around the teaching of LGBT inclusive education in primary schools.
Parents and activists protesting outside school gates; claims that schools have disregarded parental rights and religious beliefs; threats to withdraw children unless equality lessons are suspended; calls from schools for government intervention; and pleas for clarification on the new regulations around relationships education.
Parkfield Community School and Anderton Park Primary in Birmingham have borne the brunt of the protests, yet despite the furore, both schools have remained steadfast in their commitment to teaching in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. So what does the Act say, how does it sit with relationships education, and where do we go from here?
The Equality Act, on the statute books for almost a decade, provides protection from discrimination to people with ‘protected characteristics’, which include race, sex, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment sexual orientation.
There’s no hierarchy – all protected characteristics are equal – and neither is there any provision allowing schools or parents to ‘cherry pick’ which protected characteristics schools should educate about and which to ignore.
Under the Act, the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) requires schools to have ‘due regard’ to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and foster good relations.
The Equality Act is central to the Ofsted inspection regime, and overlaps significantly with many of schools’ other duties, such as the duty to promote British values.
As of 1 September 2020, primary schools will be required to teach pupils about positive and safe relationships of all kinds, and about the society in which they’re growing up.
FAQs published by the DfE address some of the ‘common misconceptions’, while making it clear that the regulations are “Designed to foster respect for others and difference.”
Alive to the dangers
In April, Damian Hinds called for an end to the protests and tried to clarify the expectations placed on primary schools: “What is taught, and how, is ultimately a decision for the school,” he said, stressing that although schools must consult with parents about relationships education, “Consultation doesn’t provide a parental veto on curriculum content.”
He went on to talk of primary schools being “Enabled and encouraged to cover LGBT content, if they consider it age-appropriate to do so” – sentiments which were welcome, but which many felt didn’t go far enough.
That much was evident when the NEU voted at its annual conference to campaign on making LGBT education compulsory, rather than allowing primary schools flexibility on the matter.
Of course, parents must be consulted, given time to ask questions and feel able share their concerns. Respect must be shown for religious beliefs, but the final say remains with schools.
Under the regulations, schools are entitled to raise awareness and understanding of LGBT relationships – indeed, many already do – but they must also ensure they continue to teach about equality and diversity in accordance with their public sector equality duty under the Equality Act.
Given recent rises in global terrorism, far-right ideologies and hate crime, children should learn to celebrate difference, and understand that there are many types of families in this world. Messages around equality mustn’t be diluted.
Laura Clark is senior HR manager at One Education, working with a large number of schools and academies, and is a qualified solicitor, specialising in employment law.