Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson

Headteacher, Anderton Park primary school, Birmingham

I’m amazed that nobody from the LGBT community has taken the DfE to court for discrimination

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’s desk in Anderton Park primary is strewn with cards from well-wishers across the world. A bunch of flowers in rainbow colours sent by a supporter in Australia are in a vase next to her as she tells me how exhausted she is.

It has been nine weeks since protests against her inner Birmingham school’s equalities education started. Protesters, most of them Muslim, moved on to Anderton Park after Parkfield in nearby Alum Rock dropped its “no outsiders” LGBT education programme.

We talk about being gay about 0.5 per cent of the time

The crowd outside her school gates may be gone for now – the High Court granted an interim injunction last Friday – but the sense that they could return again at any moment hangs over this vibrant, calm school like a dark cloud.

Those involved say children are being “sexualised” and that the school’s teaching about LGBT rights conflicts with their religion.

But Hewitt-Clarkson is adamant that the protests do not represent her city or most of her parent body.

“When I see those pictures of 200 to 300 people on one afternoon standing outside my school, I look at that like I’m an observer from a foreign land. That’s not my city. That’s not my school,” she says.

Born in the city, Hewitt-Clarkson first left her beloved Birmingham when she went to study philosophy at Swansea University.

She chose the Welsh city because she “wanted to go to the beach”, and loved her time there.

Returning to Birmingham to do her PGCE, Hewitt-Clarkson worked in schools in Dudley for about 13 years before becoming deputy head at Anderton Park 12 years ago. She became its head in 2012.

She can’t remember exactly why she became a teacher. Her father, “another Brummie”, was a head in Dudley and she “never really thought I wanted to be anything else”.

“Without being clichéd, education is massively important, and if there’s anything this current situation teaches you, it’s thank God for schools and teachers,” she says.

“This isn’t an extension of home. It’s not a place of worship. It’s different. And many things will be similar and some things will be different, and that’s the way it should be.”

Anderton Park’s approach to equalities education, which weaves teaching about equal rights and the challenging of stereotypes into the wider curriculum and has the 2010 Equality Act at its core, is nothing new.

Hewitt-Clarkson and her team updated their approach in the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal that rocked Birmingham’s schools half a decade ago, but it was only after the government announced plans to update relationships and sex education in England’s schools earlier this year that Anderton Park’s approach came under fire.

For Hewitt-Clarkson, there are “numerous” similarities between the protests and the Trojan Horse affair.

“It’s only ever a handful of people. It’s never everybody. But it’s coercive, controlling behaviour by mainly men, making demands,” she says.

“Back in Trojan Horse times, they were saying things like ‘she’s fixed the SATs results’ or ‘she spent money where she shouldn’t spend money’. Now it’s ‘she’s a vile Islamophobe’ and ‘she’s a paedophile’.”

Equality literally oozes out of this school’s walls

The suggestion that Hewitt-Clarkson and her dedicated team are somehow “sexualising” pupils at the school is popular among the protest’s leaders. But unlike many other primary schools, Anderton Park doesn’t actually teach sex education.

“We have never taught sex here,” Hewitt-Clarkson says. “Some primary schools do, but we don’t, and we never will.”

Anderton Park doesn’t deliver specific lessons on LGBT rights either. Instead, the idea of families with “two mummies or two daddies” is normalised through the books that children read and the discussions they have with teachers.

“When you read all these news reports or listen to these protesters, you’d think we talk about being gay the whole time,” Hewitt-Clarkson says. “It’s probably 0.5 per cent of the time, but because it’s here there and everywhere, it’s just normal.

“It’s not a lesson. It’s not a special week. It’s tiny, but it’s the most valuable thing we can talk about.”

The protests may be on a hiatus, but Hewitt-Clarkson is still preoccupied. She tells me she’s “exhausted” and “a bit vacant” when she gets home every day.

“One of my children is doing her GCSEs, and I don’t see her in the morning because I leave really early, and I get back at 7pm. That’s not very good for a mum whose child is doing GCSEs. I’m dealing with the protests and trying to do my job at the same time.”

Has she considered giving up? “Not once.”

“There is so much hate and anger and misery in the world that is caused by inequality that I’m really glad there is a public sector equality duty placed on me and my staff to make sure that’s part of our school life and part of these kids’ education.

“And since I’ve been here, but also before that, this school is built on that. It literally oozes out of the walls.”

A catalyst for the protests was the publication earlier this year of the government’s new relationships and sex education curriculum. From September next year, all schools will have to teach about relationships and health, and all secondaries will have to teach sex education.

Hewitt-Clarkson said some parents “started freaking out” about the words “compulsory” and “sex”, and that “genuine fears and genuine confusion were fuelled unforgivably by people who are homophobic”.

Like Trojan Horse, nobody actually knows what to do

The Department for Education’s statutory guidance on the matter, which dictates what schools must cover, is unequivocal that all schools must teach that marriage can be between members of the opposite or same sex, and that some families look different to others.

Hewitt-Clarkson is fully supportive of the content in the guidance itself.

But she is damning about an insistence in a “frequently asked questions” document and in statements by ministers that although primary schools are “enabled and encouraged” to cover LGBT content if they “consider it age-appropriate to do so”, there is no requirement for them to teach it.

She believes this contradiction amounts to discrimination and has fuelled homophobia because a single protected characteristic is singled out for exemption.

“I’m amazed that nobody from the LGBT community has taken the DfE to court for discrimination. Because I can’t see what else it is,” she said.

“We have people holding banners saying ‘Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’. And that fire is still being given oxygen because the bottom line is ‘I’ll leave it up to headteachers’. That’s wrong.”

Damian Hinds, the education secretary, has recently called for an end to the protests, but Hewitt-Clarkson says his response was too little, too late.

“It’s one of these situations, a bit like Trojan Horse, where actually nobody knows what to do,” she adds. “I genuinely do think that.

“Having said that, the government of a country that has a law about equality, a public sector equality duty, should know exactly what to do.”

It is this public sector equality duty – a legal requirement on school staff to advance equality between those with a protected characteristic and those without – that drives Hewitt-Clarkson’s commitment to her equalities programme.

She believes that holding all schools to account over their commitment to the duty would make protests like the one outside her school pointless.

“This is where the DfE needs to come in and say every school is expected to tell pupils that some people have two mummies. Full stop. The guidance needs to go further. Parents should not be under the illusion that a school down the road does not teach this ‘immoral nonsense’. That’s completely untrue, and schools should not be shying away from that either.”

Next Monday Hewitt-Clarkson will return to the High Court in London to find out if the interim injunction granted against the protesters last week will become permanent.

But she says a change in approach by the government is needed – to prevent the same thing from happening at other schools across the country.

“They wrote their policy from Whitehall. They should’ve written it sitting in this office. They should do that with all policies, because Damian Hinds doesn’t have to listen to somebody screaming down a megaphone.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    Sounds like a good person caught in an unenviable position that should have been given more support. Yes by Damian Hinds for sure, but why doesn’t the piece address the disgraceful behaviour of the MP for the school’s area Roger Godsiff?

    • Mark
      I think you need to find out the facts about ‘the behaviour of Roger Godsiff’ before jumping to conclusions. You can find it here

      Here is an extract:

      Speaking to Birmingham Live, Mr Godsiff, Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green, said he supported the parents because he did not believe the school had consulted them.

      He also felt it was reasonable for parents to want their children to learn about LGBT issues at an appropriate age, agreed between the parents and the school, he said.

      Mr Godsiff said he supported the Equality Act. This is a law that states children should be taught before they leave primary school that it is wrong to victimise, discriminate or in any way bully people on the basis of nine so-called “protected characteristics”.

      The characteristics are sex, race, age, disability, marriage and civil partnership, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, and pregnancy or maternity.

      But he said: “I came to the conclusion that whereas 99% of primary school headteachers in Birmingham had addressed the issue of how to engage their children with the Equality Act, and had done it as the legislation and guidance says, in a sensitive way, taking into account age appropriateness and taking into account religious belief – a couple of headteachers in Birmingham had decided no, we are going to do it our way, and to have minimum consultation with the parents.

      “And on that basis, I came to the view that the parents were actually right when they said no, we want the right to engagement, we want discussions, as there have been at other schools.”

      Parents were not opposed to teaching children about same sex relationships, he said.

      • Mark Watson

        Hmmm, so someone is accused of bigotry. Where would I go to get independent confirmation of whether this is fair or not …

        I know. Let’s go to a website written by him. Yes, that’ll give me a fair and balanced analysis.

        I’ve posted elsewhere about the reprehensible use of references to “LGBT issues”

        • Before accusing someone of bigotry for allegedly saying stuff, it is obviously necessary to reference what he is actually saying. What part of Roger Godsiff’s argument do believe is ‘bigotry’? There is the wiff of McCarthyism here. For ‘Commie’. read ‘Homophobe’

          • Mark Watson

            Yeah, not just me thinking he’s beyond the pale though is it:

            “This might be the personal views of Mr Roger Godsiff but they do not represent the Labour Party & are discriminatory & irresponsible.” – Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary.

            “This made me feel sick to my stomach. One of my own Labour colleagues stood with people who have peddled hatred and bigotry on school gates, intimidating pupils, teachers and parents.” – Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North

            “How dare you tell men whose homophobic protests were so threatening and disruptive that they had a court injunction issued against them that they are ‘right’.” – Labour Councillor Brigid Jones, deputy leader of Birmingham city council.

            These quotes are all from elected Labour representatives, as reported in the Guardian. I don’t need to point out that the comments from other politicians and media outlets are rather more accusatory.

          • It was the same in 1950s America. The allegation of ‘Commie’ was enough to set off a baying mob causing huge numbers of decent and honourable to be vilified. It has happened throughout history. I would just challenge all of the people you mention to point out precisely what Roger Godsiff has said and written that they take objection to. Note that this is different to ‘disagreeing’ with him. All of us have to decide – shall I join the mob, or shall I investigate the evidence for myself?

          • Mark Watson

            Ahhhh, the argument of the racist. The rallying call of UKIP et al.

            “I can’t say nuffink about race wivout the liberal elite shutting me down”.

            Only you’re talking about homophobia rather than race. Just look at the picture in the article – “Say no to sexualisation of children”. Can you please explain how what the school was doing amounted to the “sexualisation of children”?

  2. The curriculum, including the teaching of LGBT issues is not the responsibility of Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, but her governing body. This is set out very clearly in the 2017 Statutory Guidance for maintained schools and local authorities. Why has there been no mention of the Governors in any of the media coverage?

    These are the relevant sections

    11. Meaningful and effective engagement with parents, staff and the wider community is vital, but this is not the same thing as governance and is not achieved by having various categories of governor on the governing body. Through both appointments and informed elections the focus should be on constructing a governing body with the right skills. Community engagement, including with parents, should be seen as an
    important but distinct activity for which governing bodies will need to assure themselves that appropriate structures and arrangements are in place.
    12.The governing body as a whole should take responsibility for understanding what parents think, while acknowledging that being parents themselves, parent governors have valuable knowledge and perspectives about the school to bring to bear in discussions and decisions and guarantee that there is always a link between governance and the parent community.

    While many of the protesters were not parents and may have had their own agendas, many were, and the more detailed press reports of their views made it clear that they had no problem with the teaching of LGBT issues in the school, but questioned whether it was appropriate for the 4 and 5 year-olds in Reception and Y1 Many parents made the point that none of the other local primary schools did this.

    The advice of child development experts is important. A Piagetian would point out that many 4 year-olds would still be in the ‘Pre-Operational’ stage of cognitive development (failure to understand conservations when water is poured from one container to another of the same shape, and that objects still exist when they are out of sight). The difference in cognitive development between August and September born children in the Reception class is likely to be huge, making the concept of ‘two mummies’ not only generally out of reach, but hugely so for different children. One parent asked what she should say to her child if asked ‘why can’t I have two mummies?’ As a science teacher I can state with confidence that there is no way that a 4 year-old could understand any honest answer to that question, resulting only in confusion.

    • Mark Watson

      Perhaps there’s no mention of the Governors because they didn’t want to receive death threats, be egged, or receive the kind of abuse shown towards anyone who’s stuck their head above the parapet.

      Perhaps Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, as someone who can’t avoid all of the above, has taken it all on her shoulders.

      Still, why not kick her anyway eh ?

        • Mark Watson

          And yet the intimidating behaviour continues. Typical armchair warrior – denigrating voluntary governors for not standing up to a baying mob.
          And as it stands, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson is a governor, so it turns out they are being heard.

          • Mark Watson

            You said “Many parents made the point that none of the other local primary schools did this.”

            To use your own argument, have you investigated that yourself or are you relying on mob hearsay?

            And sorry, but your question about other schools not being accused of homophobic bigotry for not taking the same line is a rubbish argument. If I don’t say anything about racial equality you can’t call me a racist. But if I do say something about how it’s important and the right thing, and someone says I can’t say that, then I can call them a bigot. Not saying something is very different to objecting vociferously to someone else saying something.

    • Mark Watson

      “As a science teacher I can state with confidence that there is no way that a 4 year-old could understand any honest answer to that question.”

      Wow. Just wow.

      How on earth does being a secondary school science teacher give you any standing whatsoever to make that statement?

      • I gained a distinction in my M.Ed. degree from Leicester University where I studied theories of learning and child development, which are both highly relevant to science teaching.

        Perhaps you can offer an answer to the question from from the 4 year-old child. “Mummy, why can’t I have two mummies?”

        All curriculum topics need to be matched to the level of cognitive development of the learner otherwise they are just empty gestures,

        It would not be appropriate to teach Climate Change Issues (do you have a problem with such terminology?) to Reception and Y1 children for the same reason.

        • Mark Watson

          I have no standing to offer an answer to that question at all. But then I’m not pretending I can give an absolute answer.
          In my experience, when you have a question so complex as what a 4 year old child may or may not understand, there is no definitive answer, and when someone says “I can state with confidence” what they actually mean is “my personal view is”.

          • It is the professional responsibility of teachers to form judgements about what their pupils are capable of understanding. If the wrong judgements are made then not only will there be no effective learning, but pupils may become confused, upset and alienated. What I fear is going on here is the making of ‘gestures’ to impress the LGBT activist community rather than soundly considered judgements by educational professionals that have been discussed by the whole of the staff, governors and parents. I wondered how long it would take you to deploy the ‘homophobia’ smear.

  3. “Only you’re talking about homophobia rather than race. Just look at the picture in the article – “Say no to sexualisation of children”. Can you please explain how what the school was doing amounted to the “sexualisation of children”?

    There were clearly others with their own agendas that hijacked the protests. As Roger Godsiff took the trouble to find out, the parents objection was not to the content but to the ‘age appropriate’ decisions of the school, which, unlike every other local school, failed in its statutory duty to consult with the parents and the community.

    • “And sorry, but your question about other schools not being accused of homophobic bigotry for not taking the same line is a rubbish argument. If I don’t say anything about racial equality you can’t call me a racist. But if I do say something about how it’s important and the right thing, and someone says I can’t say that, then I can call them a bigot. Not saying something is very different to objecting vociferously to someone else saying something.”

      What? I am not denying your right to your views and your right to express them. However you are calling me a ‘homophobic bigot’ for disagreeing with you. Everybody has a duty to obey the law. None of the other local schools, presumably after following the due legal process of proper consultation with their staff, governors, parents and community (apparently absent from Anderton Park), have decided to obey the law in the same way as Anderton Park. This is the assertion of local parents and Roger Godsiff MP. Given the hateful, mob-fuelled abuse he has received, I am sure that it would soon have been pointed out had he got his facts wrong.

      It is important to note that the parents interviewed by the Guardian and the BBC, along with Roger Godsiff, all agree with the Equalities Act and the need for LGBT education in schools.

      However, it is also important to remember that in a free country, while everybody is required to obey the law they are not required to agree with it. For example, there is a large body of opinion, which includes Guardian journalists, that believes that recreational cannabis use should be legalised and there are millions of people in the Anglican, RC, Muslim and other communities who do do not agree with gay marriage and gay adoption. It is not hateful bigotry to hold such views. On the contrary it IS hateful bigotry to accuse such as Justin Welby and Pope Francis of hateful bigotry.

      For the record I am an atheist.

      • Mark Watson

        No. All the parents interviewed SAID they agreed with the Equalities Act and the need for LGBT education. In the same way that Tommy Robinson, the BNP, Britain First etc all SAY they’re not racist. Actions speak louder than words though.

        So when a group of people decide to descend in a mob on a school and scare the children and the teachers, send death threats to teachers, pelt people with eggs for putting up banners, and all because a school tried explain that some families are made up of children with two mummies, I don’t have any problem in calling them homophobic bigots.