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    « Challenging preconceptions | Main | Changes to the way Ofsted inspects and reports »

    Celebrating diversity, tackling conflict

    The recent protests taking place outside Birmingham, Manchester and London schools have spread to many parts of the country. They have also impacted on colleges. The protests centre around the teaching of same-sex relationships and trans-equality issues. They have resulted in complaints, protests, young people being removed from classes and staff being intimidated and threatened.  How are we to respond? How can we maintain a culture of respect? What are outstanding providers doing? Here are my thoughts – what are yours?

    How and why did it all begin?

    Andrew Moffat, assistant head teacher at Parkfield Community School, a primary school based in Birmingham, created the ‘No Outsiders’ project. This celebrates diversity and teaches children about the Equality Act 2010, British values and the values of inclusion. The project uses books about a dog that doesn't feel like it fits in, two male penguins that raise a chick together and a boy who likes to dress up like a mermaid. The project also teaches about diversity and acceptance for other aspects of identity such as race and religion. The project was soon adopted by many schools across the country.

    But in January 2019, parents raised concerns that quickly escalated to noisy and aggressive protests outside the school gates. People, predominantly those holding the Muslim faith, felt that the project undermined and contradicted their faith beliefs. However, this is not solely a Muslim faith issue; protests also reflected the concerns from some people of the Christian and Jewish faith.

    Many of the protests have been influenced by misinformation. Leaflets have been circulated, for example, that falsely stated that the programme encouraged infants to masturbate. An Ofsted report found there was no evidence the curriculum at Parkfield overly focused on lesbian, gay, bi or trans (LGBandT) issues. They also found no evidence that the programme was not being taught in an age-appropriate manner.

    What’s been the impact?

    The prolonged action has taken its toll on several teaching staff. Mr Moffat, who is gay, has received offensive emails and threats, including one, for example, which warned he ‘wouldn't last long’. Hazel Pulley, chief executive officer of the trust which runs Parkfield school, said some staff had lost weight and could not sleep.

    An emotionally-charged meeting in April between 85 head teachers, Department for Education (DfE) officials and the council in Birmingham saw some people in tears.

    At the end of August, the Independent newspaper revealed that the number of hate crimes in schools and colleges affected by the protests have surged by more than 50% in a year. Homophobic and far-right Islamophobic hate mail have been reported to the police.

    This summary doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issues and if you have not been following this in the media then you can get a more complete picture and further links here

    What have others said?

    Ofsted has backed the No Outsiders programme, saying that all children must learn about same-sex couples regardless of their religious background. They said it is crucial that children and young people are exposed to differences in society, and important that children and young people know that families are different. For example, families sometimes have two dads, or two mums, or only one mum or dad, sometimes no mum or dad, sometimes an extended family.

    Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said ‘it serves no one well to intimidate teachers and start protesting outside the school gates. All that does is make a difficult situation worse, while setting a terrible example for the children. It is children’s voices that always get lost when adults stop talking and start shouting.’

    Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called the surge in hate crime ‘disturbing’. He added that the recent protests have exemplified a ‘heightened sense of social tension.’

    Damian Hinds, the education secretary, has said ‘We want children to grow up understanding that some people are different, some relationships are different from what they may have experienced, but all are valuable.’ However, the government has been criticised for the ambiguity and lack of clarity in its sector guidance.


    Here are my thoughts – what are yours?

    As a person of faith, I have great respect for deeply held religious convictions, even when these differ to my own.

    As an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultant and trainer, it should come as no surprise that I believe passionately in LGBandT equality. Families and relationships are different and these are to be celebrated. I also believe passionately in faith equality, actively standing against, for example, the recent spike in hate crime against people of the Muslim faith. People of all faiths and none have a right to practice their belief with dignity and respect.

    It is sadly ironic that the idea of teaching young people about difference, tolerance and respect has had the opposite effect, triggering more division and debate. We have to be prepared to engage in calm and courteous discussions that respect all protected characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender identity and faith.

    It’s important to recognise that many faith schools and colleges have practice to celebrate on integrating and promoting EDI and British values. One of the catholic sixth form colleges that I support, for example, teaches about same-sex relationships and gender identity in a respectful way, but they also teach about the central tenets of their faith. So they may, for example, discuss with students that gay marriage exists and is lawful, but they recognise that not everyone who practices their religion will accept same-sex relationships. They will teach that while people hold different views on same sex relationships within the Christian faith, all will agree that homophobia is completely unacceptable as this violates the dignity and value of human beings. While this whole approach may not be regarded by some as going ‘far enough’, it balances and respects both LGBandT and faith protected characteristics. It also encourages ongoing debate and discussion. Ofsted awarded the college outstanding across the board at the last inspection.

    Staff in outstanding schools and colleges recognise and embrace their role and responsibility to prepare learners thoroughly for life as active citizens in Britain’s complex multicultural society. An important part of this involves equipping learners to have respectful discussions with those who hold different views to their own. To be able to disagree without being disagreeable. To understand the impact of their words and actions on the lives of others and to stand up for injustice and inequality.

    So where do we go from here? What does all this mean in practical terms for schools and colleges? What about Ofsted? The Government?

    For schools and colleges

    Outstanding schools and colleges create an environment where difference is respected, the principles of EDI are nurtured and bullying of all kinds is never tolerated. Staff are prepared to take risks and are skilled at discussing sensitive or controversial issues. Some of my most popular training programmes support and equip staff to embrace this role. See, for example, information about the following training workshops:

    • Equality, Diversity, British values and classroom practice, which you can download here
    • Taking risks, facilitating controversial conversations, which you can download here
    • Equality, Diversity, British values and curriculum leadership, which you can download here
    • Equality, Diversity, British values and Business Support staff, which you can download here

    It’s often a lack of understanding and awareness that fuels prejudice. And this is where unconscious bias can play a part. Another of my popular training workshops is ‘actively tackling unconscious bias, outstanding teaching and learning.’  This equips staff to actively tackle unconscious bias personally and at a team level. It will help drive forward promotion of equality and diversity to create a genuinely inclusive working and learning environment where all are treated with dignity and respect. You can download information about this workshop here.

    You can also find out further information about my other training courses, including those that focus on valuing and nurturing difference, tackling prejudice and discrimination, by visiting the training page of my website:

    For the Government

    The ambiguous guidance currently issued by the Government has placed schools and colleges in a difficult position. The guidance needs to be much more explicit, to remove the uncertainty and to take the debate away from the school or college gate.

    For Ofsted

    That they continue to support schools and colleges to embrace inclusion and teach about difference.

    To end with the words of Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman at a conference in July 2019;

    ‘Arm our children with knowledge. Teach them well. Prepare them for a modern world, in which many people will try to tell them what to think, by giving them the knowledge to contextualise those arguments and the skills to express their own views and put them into action. And teach them about the wonderful diversity of humanity in modern Britain: a diversity of race, gender, faith and love. Education shouldn’t sow the seeds of discord, it should prepare the citizens of tomorrow to create a more tolerant, respectful and hopeful world.’

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