Community cohesion: Managing the impact of critical incidents in schools

Birmingham City Council (BCC) found itself at the centre of a national controversy when protesters sought to demonstrate outside primary schools in opposition to the inclusion of LGBT+ content in lessons, following the announcement by DfE that Relationships Education would be compulsory from September 2020.

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The local authority had to manage the community tensions and seek a resolution which managed the rights and responsibilities of community groups with differing protected characteristics. As well as this, the council also needed to consider the rights and needs of a broad range of staff affected by the issue.                                    

The challenge

A number of schools in Birmingham sought to deliver lessons which included content about LGBT equality. Some parents, mostly devout Muslims, thought that this was not age-appropriate and was in conflict with their religious beliefs.

As a result of this a series of protests took place outside the schools, leading to increased community tensions and a difficult operating environment for the children and staff involved with the schools. These protests attracted national interest not only from the mainstream media, but also from agitators and actors linked to a variety of extremist groups across the country, each seeking to utilise the situation to promote their own agenda.

The solution 

This was a difficult situation for the local authority. As tensions escalated the council created a critical incident network to keep childcare practice safe, involving a broad range of partners from across the council and partner agencies. Establishing a critical incident management roadmap and sharing with the affected schools helped the establishments to manage the situation in a cohesive manner.

The council’s approach could not be purely reactive. They tasked themselves with seeking to develop an in-depth understanding of the local issues and context around the situation. This helped establish the motivations of each of the actors involved and understand their objectives and requirements, supporting the council to be able to listen not only to the loudest voices but also the unheard narratives across different communities.

Birmingham’s driving philosophy was to ensure that children’s welfare was kept at the centre of decision-making, and that consideration was always being given as to how they were experiencing this situation and any potential risk which may require mitigation.

Whilst the issues were largely local, clearly national-level stakeholders were deeply involved and Birmingham went to great lengths to ensure that the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted were engaged and made aware of the issues, and their guidance and involvement sought as required. DfE and Ofsted formed part of the oversight arrangements which governed the critical incident network alongside UNICEF, the University of Birmingham and local players.

A crucial element of this work lay in communications, community engagement and media handling. Many of those involved in the protests sought to manipulate the situation through the promotion of their own messaging, and the local authority had to tread a fine balance around this whilst considering how their actions (and those of ‘the state’ more generally) would be perceived by the broader community.

This situation led to a difficult balancing act for the council, who had to balance all the needs and beliefs of their citizens and workers with their duties under equalities legislation.

Central to this was the concept of Fundamental British Values (FBV), in particular “respect and tolerance”. Ultimately the council’s strategy hinged on this concept; to demonstrate that whilst we might not agree with each other’s positions and beliefs, we can demonstrate the FBV of respect and tolerance in doing so.

On this basis the council built a programme of community engagement, working with all sectors to try and encourage those who are trusted by communities to engage and to understand the truth of the details of the lessons, rather than the misinformation which was being used to drive division.

More targeted engagement took place directly with parents via BCC staff, working to share the lesson content and ensure that the council listened to the concerns and views of the parents, as well as using a specialist equalities charity to mediate between stakeholders.

Another crucial element of the response involved supporting practitioners. Some were deeply affected through their personal beliefs, others struggled to balance their inner need to ‘do the right thing’ and hence to understand what that ‘right thing’ was. To support this, BCC developed a programme of support and engagement and provided additional training on mastering equality and unconscious bias.

The impact

BCC is clear that although tensions have subsided (not least due to the imposition of an exclusion zone around the affected schools, and legal action against key agitators), they have not totally resolved the situation and there has not been a reconciliation between parents and the schools.

However, they have set up improved processes around supporting schools to mitigate future risk, supported staff to a significant extent, developed better models of community engagement and support, and integrated the lessons learned into their future strategies.  The council, along with local schools and partners, developed a toolkit for schools to guide the delivery of compulsory Relationships Education.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Birmingham has learned to respond preventatively to emerging issues, using equalities provision to improve messaging to communities. This situation has informed approaches to potential emerging issues with other communities, and how Birmingham may seek to engage with them and address these issues moving forward. They have successfully systemised the approach to critical incidents across the city.

Work with the broader schools’ sector continues to be informed by this situation, supporting staff to better manage dialogue with children and parents and deliver effective healthy relationships lessons, modelling relationships to young people and ensuring that content bears a resemblance to the realities of modern life in an age appropriate way.

Lessons learned

A crucial lesson for Birmingham has been around the importance of staff training, and ensuring they are supported as they consider and deliver these sensitive topics. BCC feels that on reflection they could have supported their own education staff better through a particularly challenging period, and corporate messaging to staff could have been improved, providing clarity where social media and national coverage had focused on misinformation.

The national profile of these issues can encourage a variety of public figures to get involved. This is often for their own ends rather than a genuine desire to resolve the situation, and BCC feels that in future they will seek to lead the agenda on this and not be dictated to by external influences.


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