The aspects of the revised guidance which are most controversial relate to the requirement for schools to teach LGBT related content. However, the guidance is vague in that it states that schools are required to teach this content in a ‘sensitive’ and ‘age-appropriate’ way at a ‘timely point’. These terms are not defined and therefore left open to interpretation. There is a clear expectation in the guidance that young people will learn about same-sex marriage and different types of family structure.
The guidance is welcomed by many, particularly LGBT organisations and other organisations that exist to promote social justice. After all, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying has still not been eradicated from our schools and it must be.
In 2019 we have witnessed parental protests outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham in opposition to the school’s LGBT curriculum, No Outsiders. These protests have also been replicated elsewhere and are based on the assumption that the teaching of LGBT related content is in opposition to the religious values of the community.
Headteachers across the country have requested clear guidance from the Department for Education and Ofsted to help them in managing parental complaints. The recent publication from the Department, Parental Engagement on Relationships Education (Department for Education, 2019), is an attempt to support schools in the implementation of the new guidance.
The message of the Department for Education is clear in the guidance: ‘Relationships Education is best delivered with cooperation and support from parents’ (p.4). There is a strong message that parental engagement in the implementation of the new guidance is essential but also that parental engagement does not amount to a veto over curriculum content. There is also a strong message that the DfE will support schools that receive parental complaints but can demonstrate that they have engaged with parents in a process of consultation. These messages are reassuring.
However, the section of the report which addresses ‘sensitivities’ (p.11) is remarkably brief. The report states:
What is sensitive may vary according to the context of the school. In all schools, when teaching Relationships Education, the age and religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching (p.11)
Disappointingly, no guidance is given to support schools in addressing parental complaints on the basis of religion. Headteachers need clarity on how to respond to these situations, including what they are allowed to say and what they are not allowed to say to parents who object or try to veto curriculum content. All schools know that this is a sensitive area. They do not need to be told this. What they need is clear guidance on what to say to parents and what steps to take if parents attempt to block the curriculum.
The legal position is clear. Schools must address the 2010 Equality Act. What is less clear is how schools should respond to parents who attempt to use one aspect of the Equality Act to undermine another aspect of it. What is also not clear in the new guidance is what is meant by ‘age appropriate or ‘timely’. Surely, if a four year old has two same-sex parents it is age appropriate for teachers to hold a discussion about the child’s family structure. This will support them in feeling included in school and enable them to experience a sense of belonging. Many young children will have family members who identify as LGBT. They will be aware of same sex relationships from a very young age. Why is it not age appropriate to talk about children’s different personal experiences in classes with children representing religious and non-religious backgrounds. None of this is about teaching children about sex. It is about validating identities and relationships in a world where children will naturally be exposed to difference.
The guidance is insufficient for schools. It does not address the real issues that schools are currently experiencing. Education plays a vital role in combating prejudice. We must not lose this opportunity to create a better, fairer and more equal society for all. Not addressing these fundamental issues in the curriculum will simply enable prejudice to flourish and that is very dangerous.