Should Section 28 be abolished? Yes
says Gill Frances FIRST things first. Forget what you may have heard: Section 28 does not prohibit the intentional promotion of homosexuality in schools. Technically it does not affect schools at all, as it relates solely to local authorities, which have no control over sex education in the classroom.
What does affect schools, however, is the Government's new guidance on sex and relationship education, issued last month, which includes guidelines on sexual identity and orientation.
This guidance for the first time firmly establishes sex education as part of a child's entitlement within the personal, social and health education and citizenship curricula. Furthermore, it explicitly links the subject to the national healthy schools standard, which recognises the importance of a safe and positive environment for children's wider learning.
In other words, helping young people understand relationships is not a distraction from a busy timetable: it's an integral part of learning which can enhance academic performance, as well as promoting a happier school community.
The new guidance clarifies some of the uncertainties which have hampered effective teaching in this area. Anxieties about the teaching of homosexuality have made it harder to address the needs of gay young people. There is a danger that, finding lessons irrelevant or uncomfortable, they will simply switch off and miss vital information they need to protect their sexual and emotional health - a particular concern given the risk of HIV.
What is more, where schools are nervous about discussing homosexuality openly, it can be harder to combat homophobic taunting and bullying - aproblem that arises in some 80 per cent of schools, according to a recent survey.
This kind of aggressive behaviour makes the school unsafe for all its students, especially boys who may resort to violence in the face of homophobic taunts.
According to the new guidance, "there should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation" but the needs of all pupils - including gays and lesbians - should be met.
It makes it clear that "teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support".
It also emphasises the role of sex and relationship education in helping young people to understand difference, and respect both themselves and others - a critical issue in combating prejudice.
It could be argued that with these positive measures in place, Section 28 does not matter. So is it worth crossing the political minefield to repeal it? Why not simply let it stand as the anachronism that it is?
The problem is that while it remains on the statute book, Section 28 will continue to undermine the ability of teachers and other professionals to do their job well. The very fact that we are still debating what it means for schools demonstrates its power to confuse, and, until it is repealed, many of the old fears will stay to haunt us.
As the Government has acknowledged, sex education is vital - not just in helping young people to grow into confident and tolerant adults, but in enabling them to enjoy and benefit from school. If schools are to provide it effectively, they need encouragement and support, not the doubts and insecurity which Section 28 provokes.
Gill Frances is manager of the children's personal development unit at the National Children's Bureau