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

I will take the hon. Lady’s advice, under advisement. Our senior officials are working on the ground, daily, for both schools involved in this dispute in Birmingham and with Birmingham City Council in trying to find a solution to this problem. We are working hard to try to assuage concerns, but ultimately we will be on the side of the headteacher in making these decisions, because we believe the content of the curriculum is a matter for schools.

Central to this debate are deeply held views on what is right to teach children about LGBT people and relationships at different ages—not because of bigotry or intolerance, not to push an agenda, but because they believe they know best for the children involved. This reveals the truth about equality and respect: sometimes it is hard. And when opinions differ, we should talk; dialogue is what moves us forward. That is why we are strengthening the requirements on schools to consult parents. From September 2020, all primary schools will be required to teach relationships education and all secondary schools will be required to teach relationships and sex education—RSE. We have set out in the regulations for these subjects that schools will be required to consult parents on their relationships education or RSE policies. That requirement means that the dialogue we consider so important in reducing misunderstanding and getting this teaching right will be happening in every school.

It is important to note that relationships education is not about sex, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Rhondda. It is about learning the importance of kindness and respect for others, and providing children with the foundations to understand difference and be able to build constructive relationships with those who may appear different from them. We are encouraging as many schools as possible to start teaching the new subjects from September 2019. Whether or not schools do so, we recommend they start planning their consultation with parents now, to ensure this is done in good time and effectively. As I have said, we are publishing supporting materials to help schools to get this right.

Schools are not required to consult parents on any teaching they choose to give about the Equality Act. However, when such teaching involves young children, and when schools know that their pupils’ parents have strongly held beliefs related to the content, it is absolutely right that schools engage with parents, listen to their views and reflect. To answer the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, I think it would be appropriate for a school to work with parents to determine how Equality Act teaching is delivered in the school, if that works for them. That does not mean that headteachers should spend excessive time consulting parents or that consultation should go on in perpetuity. Schools are well practised at consulting and engaging their parent bodies on aspects of their activities, and if they have good practices in place they can and should be used to consult parents on this topic. If schools feel that their current engagement processes are not effective, the introduction of the new subjects is a good opportunity to learn from good practice in other schools and to improve.

Consultation does not mean that parents can veto curriculum content; it means sharing a proposed approach, seeking views and using those views to inform a final decision. It is not a vote. Consultation does not mean abandoning teaching about respect for difference. I do not believe that is what parents would want and it is not what schools should feel they must do. Consultation certainly does not mean that schools should be on the receiving end of intimidating behaviour, protests or bullying. The Department has been clear that protests outside primary schools are unacceptable and should stop.

The RSE legislation is clear that it is parents whom schools must consult. We do of course encourage schools to recognise and reflect on their important foundational role in local communities. If schools consider it useful to engage members of their wider community on any of their activities, including the teaching of relationships and sex education, we would support that activity. Consultation does mean the consideration of whether the strongly held views of a school’s parent body should lead it to adapt when and how it approaches certain topics with pupils. It is only right for parents to be able to share their views on how and when their child will be taught topics that are sensitive to them. Schools should consider those views and balance them with their views on the needs of pupils and the wider school community. Ultimately, it is for schools to decide their curriculum, having taken these views on board.