The start of a new calendar year is a time traditionally given over to resolutions and promises to change. Good intentions often falter because we fail to identify or address the root causes of our existing patterns of behaviour. We wouldn’t need that diet if we really understood and applied the principles of healthy eating, for example. Nothing magical happens on January 1st that will enable us to adopt a way of life we have studiously avoided for the previous 365 days. It takes effort to establish new patterns and habits.
I think this resistance to change might offer a possible explanation as to why, as 2016 starts, we as a society are still fighting for an equality which has been enshrined in law since 2010. I am referring to the right not to be discriminated against as a result of gender reassignment or sexual orientation, protected characteristics under UK law.
Now, there will be some who are uncomfortable with these being part of a blog about primary education, and to them I say: that is exactly my point. After 5 years it should not be the case that so many educators have failed to consider their public duty in relation to the Equalities Act. After five years, one could expect a profession guided by an underpinning set of values that are meant to include tolerance, democracy and mutual respect to have addressed these issues sensitively. So why will Christmas 2015 be remembered by one child as the one where the gendered gift given by the school reminded them they are expected to identify and conform to conventional expectations relating to the gender assigned at their birth? Why was 2015 the year where the child in reception was told to put both of her mothers on one Mother’s Day card rather than make them one each to show the uniqueness of her relationship with them? Why in 2015 were LGBT teachers still questioning whether they should come out at work for fear of the response from their colleagues, senior management and parents, despite the fact that the law is on their side?
Those who want easy answers will dismiss these instances with either a comment about political correctness gone mad or, worse, a blanket ban on all gendered events or language to do with LGBT issues. This is ironic, as CPRT has actually given us the simplest answer of all: listen to the children’s voices and work with them to develop an inclusive classroom that celebrates the diversity of their families. Recognise their rights and the rights of their families.
Carol Robinson’s 2014 CPRT report on Children’s Voice details how a Rights-Respecting School can enhance children’s learning through making them feel ‘valued, cared for, respected and listened to’ (p.5). It acknowledges the positive effect developing such a classroom culture has on staff collegiality and the relationship between teachers and pupils. It seems bizarre then that any primary school leadership team would be complicit in discrimination based on LGBT rights, and yet I hear regularly of incidents such as those above. The reason I am an advocate for CPRT is because as CPR’s evidence and CPRT’s aims and priorities make clear, it advocates a more equal society; reports like Carol’s demonstrate how important it is to keep reviewing and refining the response to CPRT aims until we no longer hear these anecdotes because they no longer happen.
CPRT Priority 2 is to advance children’s voice. It is possible to teach about the meaning behind Mother’s Day and to ask the children about all of their mother-figures, allowing them to make cards for all. The same will work on Father’s Day. If a child does not have a mother or father figure, we can discuss what qualities we think these people should have and pick the person we feel demonstrates them. It may be a fictional character or a famous person. It is not up to us to reassign the card to someone who makes us feel more comfortable: let the children write their card for whomsoever they choose.
As for gendered gifts, either make the effort to find out which they would prefer (regardless of their assigned gender) or give all children the same. Next December, a simple communication from Father Christmas asking them to tick a box next to the options will allow us to find out the children’s preference. We are not asking the children if they feel they are transgender: we are simply acknowledging their diversity and not expecting them to conform to gender stereotypes.
If none of this convinces, then maybe an argument that will persuade us to address such inequity is the link between equity, educational achievement and bullying as recorded in the evidence attached to CPRT Priority 1. In their 2015 CPRT research report Mind the Gap, Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen point out that ‘inequalities in educational outcomes are more profound in more unequal countries’ and that ‘average levels of educational attainment and children’s engagement in education are better in more equal societies’; and the 2014 Teachers’ Report produced by Stonewall states that ‘Almost half of primary school teachers (45 per cent) say that pupils at their school have experienced homophobic bullying or name-calling.’
It would not be unreasonable to look beyond socio-economic issues to include wider inequalities; to link the number of teachers citing homophobic incidents in primary settings with an inequality in recognising the diversity of our school population. Bullying and discrimination affect attainment; they affect children’s engagement in school and they are something we should be addressing until no child is a victim. The CPRT Children’s Voice report highlighted UNICEF UK’s finding that staff and pupils in rights-respecting environments often commented on the low incidents of bullying. It would seem to suggest that the best way of tackling issues of bullying and discrimination is to develop an ethos that respects people’s rights according to the laws of our society.
As part of the teacher training we offer at the University of Worcester there is explicit provision relating to equality and diversity, including tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying on all postgraduate and undergraduate primary teaching courses. As a student-led project the university has set up a series of webpages, and other help is available.
So no more excuses: this is something we can resolve to address this year in order to give children the opportunity to express their true voice and celebrate who they and their families really are in all our schools. It is time to respect their rights.
Branwen Bingle of the University of Worcester co-ordinates CPRT’s new West Midlands network. If you would like to join Branwen in developing the network’s school-related activities please contact her here.