I will deal with that later.
The relationships and sex education set out in the Children and Social Work Act does not come in until September 2020, although primary schools can introduce it a year earlier. There was also draft guidance on how the Act should be implemented, and I supported and voted for the statutory instrument associated with that guidance. This legislation builds on the provisions of the Equality Act and, although it has relevance, as I shall explain later, it is the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics that I shall be talking about today, not least because that is quoted by the headteacher of the school in my constituency where the controversy has arisen.
The Equality Act does not require primary schools to actively teach the nine characteristics. According to the guidance accompanying the Act,
“schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus, and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic.”
I support and welcome the guidance, but therein lies a problem. In Birmingham, there are 258 primary schools. Thirty-nine are in my constituency. Some are local authority- maintained, others are part of academy chains, but that is pretty irrelevant in the context of this debate. In many of the 256—not 258—schools, headteachers introduce pupils to what is in the Equality Act in ways that they believe meet the requirements of the guidance. Recognising that some of the nine characteristics may pose challenges for communities who have more conservative social attitudes, and taking into account the demographic composition of their own school, they have chosen to engage with their parents to explain the nine characteristics. They hold workshops about the individual characteristics and ongoing consultations with parents, showing them the type of materials that the school proposes to use, and they engage with parents about what age is most appropriate for the various characteristics to be introduced to pupils.
That seems eminently sensible to me, and it seems to be in line with references in the Children and Social Work Act and the draft guidance, which refers to “age appropriateness” in the context of religious background and the need for ongoing consultations. I unreservedly support and applaud those 256 headteachers, and parents are overwhelmingly supportive because there has been no appreciable backlash by parents at those schools.
At two schools, however, there has been a major reaction among parents that has become increasingly bitter and polarised. One of the schools is in my constituency, and the other is in an adjoining constituency represented by Shabana Mahmood.