Parental Involvement in Teaching: Equality Act

Part of Petition - Closure of Heywood Crown Post Office – in the House of Commons at 4:38 pm on 25th June 2019.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 4:38 pm, 25th June 2019

This has been an extraordinary Adjournment debate and, Mr Speaker, worth your waiting 10 years in the Chair to hear, I would argue.

There were powerful speeches by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), with a powerful and moving speech by Ms Eagle, who was right that we were not going to allow another generation of children to go through what previous generations endured. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, what is wanted is not to be tolerated but to be respected or, as the hon. Member for Wallasey said, plain, simple decency.

There were well argued and persuasive speeches by Richard Burden, Stephen Timms, and Lloyd Russell-Moyle. I listened carefully to the speech by Mr Godsiff, who opened the debate.

This Government agree that parents, as the primary educators of their children, should be involved in their child’s education in schools. The Government trust schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum that will prepare pupils for life in modern Britain, and we firmly believe that proper dialogue between schools and parents supports mutual understanding and ultimately benefits the progress of pupils. Schools should in particular consider whether aspects of their curriculum may be sensitive to the parents of their particular cohort and, if so, should ensure that they have properly engaged them on this content. But we must also remember that schools have been given the responsibility to educate, and ultimately it is for schools to decide what is taught, and how.

Equality for all is written into our laws. The Equality Act 2010 provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. It provides Britain with a discrimination law that protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. Schools are required to comply with the relevant requirements of the Equality Act. Chapter 1 of part 6 of the Act applies to schools. As an example, part 6 of the Act makes it unlawful for a school to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil in relation to admissions or in how the school is run. The content of the school curriculum is exempt from the duties imposed on schools by part 6 of the Equality Act. Excluding the content of the curriculum ensures, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green pointed out, that 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.

Schools are, however, subject to the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Act, which means that in discharging their functions they must have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act, and have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. Relevant protected characteristics are age; disability; gender reassignment; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.

We know that many schools choose to teach pupils about the Equality Act and the protected characteristics in the context of duties on schools, such as the requirements to promote fundamental British values and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils. Schools are perfectly entitled to teach about the Equality Act in this context, and the Department thinks it is right that pupils leave school with a proper understanding of the importance of equality and of respecting difference. To answer the question on age appropriateness asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, schools that choose to teach about the Equality Act and protected characteristics should of course consider the age appropriateness of all elements of this and plan their curriculum accordingly.

That crucial need to respect difference would of course be a simple expectation of members of our society were all differences easily compatible. The true test of the concept of respect for difference lies in cases where our differences may appear to bring us in direct conflict with others. The fundamental expectation that we respect other people is therefore at times hard to achieve and all the more crucial for it. This has been seen in action in recent months, as some differences have seemed to divide us. We have seen protests from parents relating to the teaching of equality in our schools, with a particular focus on teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content. The media would like to portray this as religion versus LGBT. I do not doubt that some people on both sides of the debate, without links to the schools involved, are exploiting the situation due to their own lack of tolerance for the other side, but I truly believe that, for the majority, there is a real respect for their fellow citizens who are different from them.

Central to this debate are deeply held views on what is right to teach children about LGBT people and relationships at different ages.