Go into any primary school classroom and you’ll hear teachers and children talking about families. You’ll see pictures of families on the walls and books about families on the shelves. And in many schools children will learn that there are different sorts of families, and some have two Mums or two Dads. But in many other primary schools children won’t learn this because the school headteacher and governors have chosen to keep it out of the curriculum.
Integrating LGBT in age-appropriate ways into Relationships Education has provoked protest campaigns by some parents, egged on by outsiders, at Parkfield and Anderton Park primary schools. It was the subject of a well-attended and inspiring public meeting last Thursday organised by the Trades Council, where six panel members spoke of their personal and professional educational values, experiences and commitment.
The speakers were Khakan Qureshi, founder of the Birmingham South Asians LGBT Group, Ann Sawyer, a teaching assistant and founder of SEEDS (Supporting Education of Equality and Diversity in Schools), Councillor Martin Straker-Welds, a member of the Council’s Learning, Culture and Physical Activity Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Doug Morgan, Assistant Secretary of Birmingham District of the National Education Union, and Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, Headteacher of Anderton Park School, one of the pioneers of equality teaching in the city.
What has been the Council’s response to the hostile campaigning?
Ian Ward, the Leader of the Council, issued a statement some weeks ago giving full support to the schools under attack and to the attacks on mosques that were happening at the same time. And last week BirminghamLive reported that all the ten Council Cabinet members have signed a statement of support for LGBT equality teaching in every school (the statement has not yet been published on the Council’s website).The statement said there is a “moral imperative” for all young children to receive LGBT education and the Labour party will “robustly defend the principles of equality and tolerance in our schools”. “Claims that these programmes present a threat to the innocence of children are unfounded and misinformed.” “This opposition to combating homophobia only strengthens arguments that programmes like these, designed to promote mutual respect and tolerance for all, are needed.”
What are Birmingham’s schools doing to teach about LGBT equality?
It’s a good clear statement. But the problem is not just the protests at two schools that are implementing this policy, it’s that we don’t know whether other schools in the city are. In particular it may be that many primary schools, perhaps even the majority – and perhaps especially faith schools – are ignoring the issue, believing that it should be left to secondary schools. We simply don’t know, and nor does the Council.
There is only one Council committee dealing with education: the Learning, Culture and Physical Activity Overview and Scrutiny Committee. We checked through the records of its meetings for the past year. There is not a single reference to LGBT issues. It simply hasn’t been discussed by the Committee. What is the explanation for its silence? It’s because the agenda of the Committee has been narrowed down to fit the government’s agenda which is dominated by ‘school performance’ judged by test and exam scores, Ofsted reports, and positions in league tables. What has been squeezed off the Committee’s agenda is what schools are actually teaching and what they should be teaching.
The turning point was Gove’s use of the Trojan Horse affair as an excuse to send Sir Mike Tomlinson in as a hit-man to dictate the Council’s education policies. The result was the Council’s 2014 Strategy & School Improvement Plan, downsizing the local authority to just core services. This is how it described the future model:
A) The local authority should focus solely on efficiently and effectively delivering core statutory duties. These duties focus on specialist support to vulnerable children & young people and schools at risk with universal and targeted support delivered by other parts of the system. There is strong consensus on what this core remit of the council should be. This is: place planning; ensuring fair access; being a champion and advocate for vulnerable children and young people (including assessment and brokerage of services); ensuring there is a framework for school to school support and improvement; intervening in schools where there are concerns; delivering on landlord responsibilities to maintained schools.
B) Non-statutory and non-core services will transfer to alternative delivery models outside of the Council.
‘Safeguarding in Schools’ was one of the main themes of the Council’s Strategy & School Improvement Plan, which applied to all the schools in the city including academies. Because it defined safeguarding largely in terms of combating ‘extremism’ it exaggerated the importance of this aspect of safeguarding at the expense of other more widespread safeguarding issues in our schools, including those concerning racism and sexism.
However, there was one very positive policy in the Plan: support for an LGBT training programme (CHIPS) for teachers to counter homophobia, run by an expert and inspiring professional, Elly Barnes. Elly worked successfully in Birmingham schools for several years, funded by the Council, but the programme then ceased as a result of spending cuts and the Ofsted domination of the Council’s education agenda. (You can still visit Elly’s brilliant website for teaching ideas and resources.)
So what can the Council do now? Here are some immediate steps:
- Publish the new Cabinet statement on LGBT and send it to every school, including academies.
- Get and keep the issue on the Scrutiny Committee agenda including inviting successful practitioners such as Andrew Moffat (assistant head at Parkfield) and Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson to address the committee.
- Carry out an audit to find out what every school, primary and secondary – again including academies – is doing to address LGBT issues in the curriculum. Publish findings and celebrate success.
- Hold information and training sessions for school governors, including with the participation of successful teachers and activists like the panel members listed above.
- Hold sessions for teachers and support staff led by successful practitioners.