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How schools should teach students about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) issues and relationships has been in the news following recent protests.

The public attention comes as schools are considering changes they might need to make in response to the Department for Education’s (DfE) new guidance on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). The guidance comes ahead of RSE becoming a statutory requirement for schools in September 2020.

We’ve come a long way as a society in the 30 years since ‘Section 28’ – this was the legislation that prevented the discussion of same-sex relationships in schools and led to the founding of LGBT rights campaign group Stonewall.

If the recent protests have shown anything it is that school leaders need to be supported much more loudly if we are to champion the equality of humanity – and reduce some of the divisions in society.

The Equality Act and how it shapes teaching of LGBT issues

Schools have to balance complying with the 2010 Equality Act, following the statutory guidance on Relationships Education and RSE, and being leaders with moral purpose.

The Equality Act merged 116 separate pieces of legislation and created ‘protected characteristics’ – reasons why it’s illegal to discriminate against somebody: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. And schools, as a public body, are required to follow the public sector Equality Duty.

What’s really happening in the Birmingham protests?

The right for LGBT content to be introduced has been challenged recently in Birmingham by public protests a couple of primary schools following the teaching of a programme called ‘No Outsiders’. The programme has been designed to celebrate equality and teach children about the characteristics protected by the Equality Act – including sexual orientation. It is being taught at over a hundred schools in England.

The protests went so far that Birmingham City Council took out a high court injunction by the local authority to remove the protesters from outside a school. Another primary school who were running the programme felt they should postpone it due to pressure from parents. They have now announced they are to reintroduce it following consultation with parents.

There are three things to make clear:

  • the perception about what is taught is different from the reality of what is taught
  • there is an important distinction between the teaching and representation of same-sex families as a normal family unit, and the teaching of sexual relationships.
  • what is taught in RSE should be done in an age-appropriate, differentiated way depending on the age and needs of the child.

As Labour MP Angela Eagle put it in the House of Commons, “education is not propagandising” or about “trying to turn people gay, but about respecting rights", "having an equal welcome in school” and “not to be bullied”.

The protests have highlighted the issue of one Equality Act protected characteristic (faith) asserting a moral right over another protected characteristic (sexual orientation). They have also highlighted a lack of support and protection for school leaders in challenging circumstances.

More national leadership instead of leaving tough choices to schools

As Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, Headteacher at Anderton Primary School, has experienced the need to act lawfully and to also show community leadership is not a comfortable place to be. 

Education Secretary, Damian Hinds said recently that “children must be taught about “different, strong and loving” families in the new relationship education lessons” in what has been his most vocal response to the Birmingham protests. He said he would ‘strongly encourage’ primary school teachers to discuss with children about how there are all sorts of types of families, including those with same-sex parents.

Hewitt-Clarkson pointed out that this does not go far enough: ‘strongly encourage’ is not the same as ‘must’.

At the recent Festival of Education, former DfE advisor Luke Tryl went further, saying the Headteacher and the school had “been profoundly let down by policymakers”.  

Parent view

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman did assert that “parents need to learn that we don’t all get our way” and must accept that “we can’t have 100 per cent of what we want” and schools should teach that some families have two mummies or two daddies.

Most schools would view the relationship with parents as one of partnership. For example, to support learning at home, schools requires the willingness of a parent to make the time and enthusiasm for learning – particularly for reading given the impact this can have on progress.

Parents are encouraged to be engage actively in their child’s learning but if parents take a different view to that of the school, whether it is, for example, towards attitudes towards welcoming refugees or attitudes to homosexuality – what line does a school take?

Indeed, faith schools have a particular challenge, given their context, in meeting statutory requirements whilst reflecting their own belief systems, which are not always consistently understood or interpreted. Nigel Genders, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England has said:

“Schools will be encouraged to reflect their own ethos and values whilst being sensitive to the needs of the community, including the context of belief, faith, religion and culture.”

Why it matters

The rights of the child are also central. It’s worth reviewing the impact of LGBT representation in schools.

The Department of Health and Social Care found in the 2017 Mental Health and Children and Young People survey that one in ten 14-19 year olds described themselves as lesbian or gay (1.7%), bisexual (6.3%) or other (2.2%). Girls were more likely to identify with a non-heterosexual identity (13.2%) than boys (7.1%).

In the group surveyed 34.9% of those young people who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or with another sexual identity had a diagnosable mental health disorder compared to 13.2% of those young people who identified as heterosexual. Categorically then, one of the range of factors which increase the likelihood of having a mental disorder is sexual identity, especially if you are a girl.

Stonewall report that more than four in five trans young people have self-harmed, as have three in five lesbian, gay and bi young people who aren't trans.

And it’s not just about the impact on students. For teachers and other adults in school who are LGBT, there is an important freedom to be able to be your true self in a professional capacity.

Of course, as well as allowing teachers to be themselves, a school having a teacher who is ‘out’ can play an important role for young people as well as potentially providing someone to speak to for advice or reassurance.

Where next for LGBT teaching in UK schools?

Fundamentally, the Department for Education guidance at primary level is about identifying that families can take different forms, for example:

  • single parent families
  • LGBT parents
  • families headed by a grandparent/s
  • adoptive parents
  • foster parents/carers
  • family structures where children are in a caring capacity to their parents. 

An important and necessary normalisation of different family structures needs to happen to ensure all family relationships have equal weighting and representation, this is alongside the understanding that a healthy relationship is a loving and caring one.

In the context of modern, pluralistic Britain, headteachers have to embody and highlight the importance of the relationship between schools and parents, delivering the requirements of the state whilst responding positively to community views.

How can schools be empowered to lead with moral purpose, work with parents, follow the law and appropriately support pupils’ emotional and physical development while representing and reflecting the realities of family life and society?

Quite simply, they need more support from national leaders. Politicians need to show leadership and courage and not leave schools exposed to balancing a complicated set of interests on their own.

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