Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson is crying. The headteacher at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham has suffered eight weeks of protests outside her school gates over her decision to teach LGBT-inclusive content to her young pupils, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. After repeatedly putting on a brave face when I ask her how she is feeling, she finally admits: “I am in despair”, and then breaks down. She is struggling for control as she continues: “I know one of the phrases that’s associated with domestic abuse is the crushing of the spirit of a woman. And that’s what I feel is happening. We can’t give in.” The Guardian reports
The battle being fought on Hewitt-Clarkson’s school grounds is one that has nationwide implications for all schools. The row centres on whether the local authority-run school is teaching children about LGBT relationships, gender and sexual orientation in an “age-appropriate” manner. Hewitt-Clarkson believes she is – her main message to her younger pupils, for example, is that some children’s parents may be the same sex – but her parent protesters disagree.
Hewitt-Clarkson, who has devoted 0.5% of her annual timetable to teaching the characteristics of the Equality Act for years, explains: “As public sector workers, teachers have a duty to eliminate discrimination, tackle prejudice and foster good relations between people who have a protected characteristic and those who don’t. You don’t just sit back and wait until a racist or homophobic thing happens to deal with it – you go out of your way to promote good relationships.”
She shows me a few of the 25 books she uses to fulfil this statutory duty. In those aimed at very young children, characters may have two parents of the same sex: that is the only LGBT content they contain. “It’s not like I’ve decided to paint all the railings pink and sparkly and everybody’s fed up with that. This is a British law. It’s a good law and it means all of us are considered to be equal in the law.”
“The protests have been most pronounced in Birmingham because it has a history of religious activism to undermine schools,” says Colin Diamond, professor of educational leadership at the University of Birmingham. The big difference between 2019 and 2014, when the Trojan horse scandal broke, is how these activists are seeking to undermine school leaders of whom they disapprove, he says. No longer able to infiltrate governing bodies, they are now trying to influence policy “from outside the school gates”.
The government is shifting the responsibility for LGBT content – including the highly sensitive question of whether any LGBT content is “age appropriate” for primary school pupils – from politicians on to the shoulders of individual headteachers, she says. “I’ve had eight weeks of protests as a result. It’s just unforgivable.
While she is trying to deal with the protests and run a school, policymakers are “sitting in their offices in Whitehall looking at the Thames”: “They’re not working out how we’re going to sort out our deficit budget, our Sats results, all that stuff I’m doing in my job as headteacher. It’s not OK to write policies in Whitehall that affect me in Birmingham so badly.”
It was wrong of the government to give headteachers the power to decide what LGBT content to teach children at different ages, says local Labour MP, Roger Godsiff. “I think that the government guidance should have been more prescriptive as to when the different elements of the Equality Act were appropriate, in the government’s opinion, to be taught to children. Governments are elected, people have recourse to hold their politicians to account. Headteachers have had this burden put on them, and in some cases are going to end up in the situation Anderton Park is in.”
Read the full article ‘We can’t give in’: the Birmingham school on the frontline of anti-LGBT protests
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