Equality: A fact, not a choice

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
Paul Whiteman, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

The angry protests in Birmingham against schools teaching equal rights are concerning. Paul Whiteman reminds us that every school has a duty to eliminate discrimination

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

The protests began in Birmingham against schools delivering lessons on diversity and equality and on issues such as homophobia and LGBT rights.

In the small number of schools, 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 should stop.

The fundamental British values of democracy, 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.

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”. The characteristics are: race, disability, sex, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy/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 characteristics are of equal status. The law does not permit schools to pick – all must be included. To some this is unpalatable. These people would prefer that some are not spoken about – or that if they are, this is restricted to a slot in the timetable that 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 schools to talk to pupils about the differences between themselves and their peers.

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.

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.

Children are not born with opinions or beliefs. When what is said in their home is different to what is being said at school, it can be confusing. However, the law expects schools to help pupils understand that while different people may hold different views, 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 that of their friends.

My hope is that anyone reading this article will take away these key messages. Teachers, 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.

Parents, if you are unhappy about what pupils are learning in school, ask yourself whether protesting at the gates is eliminating or promoting discrimination. Ministers, if you are able to offer support and clarity where it is needed, then you should do so.

Everyone should be in favour of eliminating discrimination. It is not just what the law says, it is the right thing to do.

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Further information

Equality Act 2010: Advice for schools, Department for Education, February 2013 (last updated June 2018):


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin