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The challenge of standing firm on rights-respecting behaviours and policy in face of opposition

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Jac Bastian, head of education at Diversity Role Models, explains how we mustn’t let the fear of opposition dampen our desire to create the world we want to see. Diversity Role Models is NAHT's chosen charity partner for 2020/21.

The inspiring movements that have forced equality onto the agenda this summer have given us lots to think about as school leaders. A recent study found that up to 52% of 13-year-old pupils had heard racist comments at school. Through our work, we know 71% of year five and six pupils have heard someone say “that’s so gay” at school, and 73% of secondary students think their school isn’t a comfortable environment to come out as LGBT+.

Research indicates that having clear rights-respecting policies, values and behavioural expectations and a diverse and empowering curriculum can create schools where students feel supported and valued in, whatever their background or identity. This can have a transformative impact on behaviour, attendance and attainment. However, knowing what we need to do is the easy part. Bringing the whole school community with us and overcoming opposition often presents the bigger challenge. Opposition can seem to come from all angles, from misrepresentative media stories to parental objections and protest. True leadership, however, is about doing what is right, not what is easy.

Sometimes our greatest opponents are our fears and biases. I’ve run workshops on LGBT+ inclusion for parents/carers from a wide range of backgrounds and communities who were, to the surprise of school leaders, fully supportive of the work the school was undertaking. We can all too often project our assumptions onto parents and carers, based on stereotypical assumptions and reductive media coverage of religious minorities. Research by Jonathan Glazzard and Samuel Stones showed that 94% of parents and carers supported teaching about LGBT+ identities. Our fiercest opponents can often be our assumptions.

That said, I’ve also supported schools who have faced challenges from their parents/carers – and these challenges are certainly not confined to particular religious communities. In my experience, dialogue is the key to overcoming these challenges. When I sat down with parents who had petitioned against me running a lesson for their children, I learned that their biggest issue was a feeling of being ignored and not being listened to by leadership. Parents and carers who attend our workshops value being heard, allowed to ask questions and encouraged to share their concerns without fear of judgement. Although this is a daunting prospect, leaders should feel comfortable sharing materials, having open conversations and sharing the value of a rights-respecting ethos with the wider community.

In an era of misinformation and sensationalist headlines, rooting this work in the shared values of your school is vital. By working with the whole school community to understand what your values mean in practice, you can create a shared understanding and purpose to your policies and practices. This work isn’t about undermining parents’ role as educators, sexualising young people, or devaluing certain family structures or cultures. It’s about ensuring the safety, respect and dignity of every member of the school community.

There will always be those who disagree with the decisions you make. But if your work is rooted in your school’s values and supported by statutory and regulatory requirements, then you will be in a strong position to stand your ground in the face of opposition. As leaders who share a vision for a school system where every child is valued, it’s vital that we don’t shy away from our duty in promoting a rights-respecting ethos. We mustn’t let the fear of opposition dampen our desire to create the world we want to see. Through dialogue, mutual respect and building shared values that the whole community can get behind, we can overcome any of the challenges we face along the way.

First published 08 October 2020