When priorities clash...

Written by: Sarah Hannafin | Published:
Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser, National Association of Head Teachers

Recent events show that sometimes what parents, children and schools want doesn’t always match up, a fact that presents a particular challenge for school leaders, according to Sarah Hannafin

The recent climate change protest or the current debate around what is and isn’t taught in relationships and sex education, or religious education have thrown up interesting questions for schools.

A school leader’s responsibility is to ensure that children attend school, are kept safe and receive a good quality of education.

Parents may want their children in school or out of school depending on their own world view. And pupils’ views might be in sharp contrast to the adults around them.

Even if the law is quite clear, the right decision is not always easy to reach. Even if everyone’s intentions are for the best, things can get awkward.

Take the case of assistant head Andrew Moffat, who faced death threats for his commitment to diversity, and his use of the “No Outsiders” course. Weeks of protests by parents called for the school to stop teaching children “how to be gay” and demanded that Mr Moffat, be sacked. It is not always easy to do the right thing.

Making relationships, sex and health education compulsory is absolutely the right thing to do.

Schools have a vital role to play to ensure that all young people are able to learn about themselves, their physical and mental health, their relationships, and how to keep themselves safe, in an age-appropriate way. Otherwise, as is the case now, too many children get bad and even harmful information from elsewhere.

Religious education stirs similar passions and objections. While it allows young people the opportunity to develop understanding, tolerance and respect for religious and non-religious beliefs, practices and viewpoints, many outside the school gates would prefer that this didn’t happen.

For all the benefits RE lessons bring, it is one of the only subjects where parents have a legal right to withdraw their children.

In September 2018 the Commission on Religious Education reluctantly recommended retaining the right to withdrawal at the current time.

However, they proposed that guidance should be produced to support school leaders to manage the parental right to withdraw their children from RE lessons.

We worked with the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE)to produce the guidance and the DfE will be promoting this rather than duplicating it, which is very welcome.

In the best RE lessons I taught, I remember plenty of challenging questions and fierce debate about the meaning and purpose of life, beliefs and issues of right and wrong. Pupils began to formulate views and opinions on issues they had never really thought about before.

For many, this is the essence of education. For others it should be prevented at all costs.

When pupils staged their climate change protest, we were called upon to clarify whether we supported what they were doing.

While we support the right of young people to express themselves, first and foremost, pupils should be in school during term time. It’s simple. We cannot take a view on whether the cause is just – we can only refer to what school leaders’ obligations are.

We can’t condone young people missing out on education.

For school leaders, it’s not so much the decision but how the decision is handled and communicated. To help, the NAHT’s advice team produced some guidance to support school leaders who may need to consider what steps to take and how to respond.

Once you get past the headlines, you see that education and social action aren’t mutually exclusive. Far from it. Data from the #iwill charity shows that currently four in 10 young people aged between 10 and 20 get involved in activities that make a positive difference. They also reckon that double this number would take part in things like campaigning, fundraising and volunteering if they were given the chance.

Young people are passionate about the world they live in. We shouldn’t stifle that just because it’s sometimes a bit difficult for us to handle. What we should do is teach pupils to debate, influence and act safely and with regard for the rights and responsibilities of those around them.

Ultimately, if young people are to grow, the best thing they can do is use the safe platform that their school can provide and make the most of their education, which will equip them to pursue their lives as they choose, now and in the future.

  • Sarah Hannafin is senior policy adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers.


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