Image of Ofsted Expectations: Teaching Protected Characteristics

Ofsted Expectations: Teaching Protected Characteristics

It has been a strange year, and, despite the anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much in the media to inform us about the journey towards a more equal society. This has been played out on the streets of the nation.

For teachers and school leaders, there have been a number of high-profile examples of equalities in action. These have captured both the headlines and the interest of socially-aware pupils, making them fertile ground for discussing aspects of inequality in our society and our response to it. Not all of these have shown the authorities, public institutions, or politicians in the most favourable light.

Prejudices in the “big, wide world”

Whether it is race, disability, sex, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation, it is more than clear that prejudice is part of our society. As school leaders, we may want to think that this is what happens ‘out there’ in the big wide world and that we create a safe bubble for our pupils, so they are free from intolerance and discrimination.

No doubt, the Bristol authorities had noble sentiments about equalities embedded in their values statements and policies. Like schools, they had a statutory duty to advance equalities and develop better understanding between those who share a protected characteristic and those who don’t. In the fallout, it became clear the authorities (from both sides of the political spectrum) had good intentions and wished to address the issues surrounding the Coulson statue. Whether this was from a sincere desire to ameliorate hurt or from imperative to avoid embarrassment and reputational damage, it is not clear.

Yet, as with so many of these high-profile cases, inactivity most often caused by fear of ‘putting the cat among the pigeons’ lead to paralysis. This lack of positive action sent a silent but very clear message to those minorities, that civic leaders considered some aspects of equality just too difficult.

How do students experience discrimination?

As an inspector, I visited many schools all of whom had equalities statements with noble and laudable aims. I never once heard a school leader state they intended to discriminate, directly or indirectly, against one of their pupils. Still, more times than most would believe, I found examples where pupils heard derogatory words and sentiments based on intolerant views. They were expected to accept stereotypes of ‘traditional’ roles, deprived of seeing themselves or their families represented because adults felt that certain topics were “not appropriate for school”.

Whether we want to hear it or not, we all need to be alert to the potential that pupils who have one of the protected characteristics will almost certainly experience some form of discrimination during their time at school. The psychology cognitive (or unconscious) bias shows us that if leaders don’t want to hear it, they are less likely to look for it, and, even if they do, they are unlikely to see it.

A dear colleague and wonderful headteacher related how he was certain there was nothing discriminatory in his school and that pupils’ kindness and spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development were a strength of his school. Years after leaving, he asked his daughter whether she had experienced any homophobia and was shocked when she told him she had experienced it frequently. He was saddened further when she told him she never said anything because she never felt she would be believed.

What guidance can school leaders turn to?

When I speak to schools about equalities, I often suggest we take a leaf out of the Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSiE) handbook. Enquiries into scandals surrounding child abuse in local authorities showed there was a failure of imagination to conceive that such things were possible or challengeable within their organisation or communities.

It may make us uncomfortable to consider this, but I would urge any school leader to move into the uncomfortable zone and earnestly consider this almost certainly affects your school (I know it affected mine): No school, organisation, or public body should think itself immune or that “it couldn’t happen here”. It can.

When I joined Ofsted as an HMI, both equalities and safeguarding were limiting judgments meaning that if either were inadequate, the overall judgement would be inadequate. While you can probably all recall anecdotes of schools going into measures because of safeguarding, the equalities judgement never really got used in the same way.

It is a sad reflection that, too often, school leaders face opposition from many quarters in advancing equalities. This can mean the rather ‘British’ inclination to want to avoid a fuss, may leave those who most need to hear advocacy and see positive action, feeling excluded and ignored. If Coulson’s statue is to truly provide a ‘teachable moment’, it should be that, when it comes to equalities, failure to take positive action is ever a neutral position. 

What support is available?

At The National College, we empower whole-school communities with expert-led remote video CPD. We respond quickly to changing policy, practice, and research with easily digestible webinars and video courses, developed by a national network of leading education experts.

Some of our most popular webinars on protected characteristics include:

Teaching Protected Characteristics in Schools: How to Meet Your Ofsted Expectations – This webinar explores Ofsted’s inspection approach to protected characteristics in line with its new framework. It also explains how you can teach your students about protected characteristics in an age-appropriate way.

Empowering and Safeguarding Girls by Tackling Gender Stereotyping in Schools – This webinar explores the consequences of everyday sexism and how you, as school leaders, can tackle gender discrimination.

LGBTQ+ Inclusiveness for Schools: Practical Advice and Step–By–Step Guidance – This webinar explains statutory and Ofsted expectations when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community in your school. It also provides examples of tried and tested teaching ideas to help foster an inclusive environment.

By joining The National College, you will benefit from peace of mind, knowing your school is compliant with the latest statutory training requirements. Additionally, you will have instant access to hundreds of remote CPD webinars, each designed for flexible learning.