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Every school has a legal duty to eliminate discrimination

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NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman writes for The Sunday Times, 7th April 2019

I have thought very carefully about what NAHT should say about the protests we have seen outside some schools recently.

NAHT is a school leaders’ union. What we say matters because we represent leaders in the majority of schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the majority of these schools, there are no protests.

In the small number of schools where protests have taken place, some teachers have been threatened with physical harm and some children have been left scared to visit school.

Schools should be a place of safety and calm, and everyone in the community has a duty to create and preserve that atmosphere. Protests do nothing to help schools achieve their public duty or create the conditions children need to learn. The protests are irresponsible, and they should stop.

The fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs are enshrined in law.

Those values are a fact, not a choice.

So, let’s look at what the law says.

The Education Act requires schools, ‘as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and of society.’

The Equality Act requires schools to have ‘due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and other conduct that is prohibited by the Act. Schools must foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not.’

Protected characteristics, according to the law, are - race, disability, sex, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and gender reassignment.

The Equality Act says that schools should eliminate discrimination by promoting tolerance and friendship and by sharing an understanding of a range of religions or cultures.

Each of the protected characteristics I have listed are of equal status. The law does not permit schools to pick which ones it educates pupils about. All of them must be included.

To some people this is unpalatable.

These people would prefer that some of the protected characteristics are not spoken about in school, or that if they are, this is restricted to a slot in the timetable that some pupils can be excused from.

In Birmingham, it is unpalatable to some people that different kinds of family set-ups are being discussed in front of children.

But the Equality Act places a legal obligation on primary schools to talk to pupils about the differences between themselves and their peers. They will also be taking the recommended whole-school approach, embedding equality and other British values throughout the school day. This means it is nearly impossible for adults who object to this information being shared to be confident that some children will not hear it.

But the law is the law. In fact, the law that permits a person to follow their chosen religion or hold a belief without being discriminated against is the same law that protects someone else’s sexual orientation, or disability, or race.

Whatever protected characteristics a person has, the law says they have the right not to be discriminated against, just as they have the responsibility not to question the legal rights of anyone else.

When that starts happening, peoples’ beliefs are exposed as nothing more than discrimination.

Children are not born with opinions or beliefs already hard-wired into them. Over time, their environment establishes their values.

When what is said in their home environment is different to what is being said at school, then this can be confusing. However, the law expects schools to help pupils understand that while different people may hold different views about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, all people living in Britain are subject to its law.

A school’s ethos and teaching should support the rule of civil and criminal law and schools should not teach or omit anything that undermines it.

This is important because all children have a right to go home to whatever family they have without being forced to question whether their home life is any less loving or safe or proper than their friends’ families just because they look, or sound or seem different.

My hope is that anyone reading this article will take away these key messages:

If you are teaching content about equality that you know some people will find challenging, do not feel pressured to stop - you are only doing your duty to foster good relations in the community you serve.

If you are unhappy about what pupils are learning in school, ask yourself whether protesting at the gates is eliminating or promoting discrimination.

If you are policy-maker and you are able to offer support and clarity where it is needed, then you should do so.

Everyone should ask themselves, are they in favour of eliminating discrimination?

Everyone should say yes, and act accordingly.

It is not just what the law says, it is the right thing to do. 

First published 04 June 2019