No parent veto over the relationships curriculum

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools must consult their parents over the content of the new relationships education curriculum, but this does not give a ‘parental veto’, the education secretary has reminded us. Pete Henshaw reports

In light of parent protests outside a number of Birmingham primary schools, education secretary Damian Hinds has expressed his support for teaching about diversity and equal rights.

In a letter to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Mr Hinds said that schools must “take into account the considerations in the Equality Duty” and “give consideration to all protected characteristics”.

Relationships education is to become statutory in September 2020 and new draft statutory guidance was backed overwhelmingly by MPs in March.

The issue of parental consultation has been brought to the fore after a number of Birmingham primary schools were hit by parent protests over their use of the No Outsiders programme – which teaches children about diversity and equality “for all sections of the community”, including issues such as homophobia.

The protests led to five schools stopping or suspending lessons while they held discussions with parents.

However, the statutory guidance for relationships education says that by the end of primary school, pupils should know that families are important and that they can “sometimes look different” and that those differences should be respected. Examples given in the guidance include single-parent families, LGBT families, foster families and so on. Pupils should also know that “stable, caring relationships, which may be of different types, are at the heart of happy families”.

The guidance says that pupils must be taught LGBT content “at a timely point” and that schools must comply with the Equalities Act 2010.

Parents have a right to withdraw their children from any elements of sex education a primary school chooses to teach, but not from the relationships education curriculum. However, schools “must” consult parents in developing and reviewing their written policy for relationships education.

In a four-page letter to NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman, Mr Hinds said he understood that some parents in Birmingham felt “very strongly” but was concerned at the reports of teachers in Birmingham feeling “intimidated”.

He reiterates the requirement on schools to teach the Fundamental British Values of rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance. He also emphasised the requirements of the Public Sector Equalities Duty and, from September 2020, statutory relationships education.

He wrote: “A core part of preparing children for life in modern Britain is ensuring they understand the world in which they are growing up.

“We have been clear that pupils should receive teaching on LGBT relationships during their school years – we expect secondary schools to include LGBT content. Primary schools are enabled and encouraged to cover LGBT content if they consider it age appropriate to do so. A hugely important part of education is learning to live together – to understand one another and appreciate one another.”

Mr Hinds said that parental consultation over schools’ relationships education policy was “right” and that schools should “listen to and understand” the views of their parents. However, he continued:

“What is taught, and how, is ultimately a decision for the school.

“Consultation does not provide a parental veto on curriculum content. We want schools to consult parents, listen to their views, and make reasonable decisions about how to proceed (including through consideration of their wider duties) – and we will support them in this.”

Mr Hinds said that “myths and misinformation” are being circulated about the new relationships education guidance. He added: “While (parental) consultation is important, headteachers need to be able to respond to what is happening in their school, and in making decisions, taking into account the considerations in the Equality Duty, give consideration to all protected characteristics.”

The NAHT has welcomed the minister’s intervention and his support for schools. The union is angry that some of the parent protests have involved petitions for the sacking of school leaders.

Mr Whiteman said: “Schools have a duty to eliminate discrimination. This is important because all children have a right to go home to whatever family they have without being forced to question whether their home life is any less loving or proper than their friends’ families, just because they look or seem different.

“The law that permits a person to follow their chosen religion or hold a belief without being discriminated against is the same law that protects someone else’s sexual orientation, or disability, or race. The law does not permit schools to pick which of these protected characteristics it educates pupils about. There is clearly more to be done in Birmingham and in other areas where protests and disagreements have happened. We are encouraged by this letter that the secretary of state has taken a direct interest in bringing the protests to an end and restoring a calm teaching environment for all pupils and staff as quickly as possible.

“We agree with the secretary of state that protests should be stopped. Schools should be a place of safety and calm, and everyone in the community has a responsibility to maintain that atmosphere.”

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