All children benefit when homosexuality is discussed in schools, a new study claims. Discussion challenges playground myths, reduces bullying and intolerance and prepares pupils for adult life according to research by the Aids awareness charity Avert.
The findings are timely. Within the next few months Britain is expected to fall into line with Europe by lowering the age of consent for homosexual sex to 16. MPs are to be balloted in a free vote following a ruling by the European Commission of Human Rights last week that the existing watershed of 18 was "discriminatory".
The ruling will stir debate the appropriate age group to address on issues of sexuality. Research suggests that the average age of a first homosexual encounter is 15.7 years, so some argue that honest and informative health education is important.
The Avert study shows that many teachers still avoid the subject or are reluctant to instigate a debate with pupils. Many young people still believe that Aids and HIV are essentially gay issues which need not concern them.
Gill Lenderyou, senior development officer at the Sex Education Forum, said the ruling was a chance for schools to deal more honestly with the issue. She said many teachers still mistakenly believed that Section 28 - which prevents local authorities from promoting homosexuality - applied to schools.
She said the ruling would force schools to confront the bullying of children who seem to be different. "The levels of homophobia and heterosexism are fairly high in schools. Children tease and bully those they perceive as different. But while there is an awareness that it is not right to be racist or to bully someone about their size, the same mentality does not yet exist when it comes to sexuality.
"We know from research that gay and lesbian children often realise very early on that they are different but they don't quite know how or why. They feel isolated and lonely and let down by adults, who are often ill-informed or reluctant to talk about it with them."
Guidelines drawn up by the Sex Education Forum advise against challenging overtly homophobic behaviour among children because this might aggravate prejudices. Instead, lesbian and gay issues should be discussed in the context of people's lives and their place in society, not just in terms of relationships. Equal opportunities consideration also needs to be given when choosing library books and details of gay and lesbian agencies should feature together with those for Childline and youth clinics on school notice boards, it says.
James Lawrence, health education officer with Avert, which has published a book, Talking about Homosexuality in the Secondary School, said changing the age of consent for homosexuals should change the "hostile environment" which often surrounds the issue.
He said: "This (ruling) signals a new equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals and means that teachers will be clearer about the issues they can and cannot raise.
"Teachers need a lot of reassurance because of the confusion surrounding Section 28. This should make them more comfortable about tackling homosexual matters."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the teachers' union NASUWT, said he believed the ruling would change pastoral approaches to homosexuality. "With the age of consent currently at 18 it can make teachers feel constrained about dealing with issues that arise, particularly in the awkward 16-18 age group, " he said. "The ruling effectively decriminalises homosexuality, which will be helpful in the pastoral role of schools. Problems with the acceptance of this ruling are most likelyto be faced in Catholic schools."
Parents' groups have expressed concerns that talks on sexuality are often introduced too late for some children, and welcomed the ruling as a prompt for reviewing policies.
Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said homosexuality could be introduced "sensitively" by Years 7 and 8 in the course of personal and social education classes if children were already asking questions.
"Where children can cope with this there is no reason why the issue should not be tackled earlier. It would spare a lot of youngsters suffering the stress of feeling they are different yet not understanding why," she said. "But this has to be dealt with sensitively, with teachers receiving the appropriate training in talking to young children."
Governors, many of whom will be faced with revising their school's sex education policies on the basis of the European ruling, have yet to hold formal discussions.
The National Association of Governors and Managers said this week that it would consider the implications once the "initial furore" over the ruling had died down, though it had so far received no calls for advice on its helpline.
But secretary Ian Rule predicted problems. "There will be people sitting down together trying to sort out a common policy for their school, each with different views on the subject. It is a highly sensitive issue and it will not make for an easy life."
"Talking About Homosexuality in the Secondary School" is published by Avert, 11-13 Denne Parade, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 1JD, Pounds 9.95.