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.”
Her voice trembles with emotion. She has been having sleepless nights, she says, worrying about the impact of the protests on her staff and pupils, and has received threatening messages telling her to “watch her back”.
She had a particularly difficult week last week. Police were called last Sunday after LGBT-inclusivity campaigners and their children were pelted with eggs for tying supportive messages and rainbow ribbons on to her school gates. The following day, Hewitt-Clarkson estimates, about half the children at the school were withdrawn from lessons by parents. She believes many were intimidated by protesters who stood guard on the roads that led to the school, and says they were telling parents: “If you take your kids to school today, you’re not a Muslim and you’ll burn in hell.” On Friday, the school closed at noon so that the children would not have to put up with a highly publicised “national protest” taking place outside their classrooms. “Our children, our choice”, a video shows around 200 protesters shouting. “Let kids be kids! Listen to parents!”
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 outcry started at Anderton Park after consultations around the government’s new relationships education guidance drew the attention of religious activists to existing school curriculums in Birmingham. An award-winning programme at Parkfield community school, created by local teacher Andrew Moffat to teach children the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act, was suspended after repeated protests. That acted as a rallying call for the religious families at Anderton Park.