Teaching about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues has come a long way since 1988, when Section 28 of the Local Government Act banned mainstream schools from promoting homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship”.
Although Section 28 was repealed in the UK in 2003, it still casts a shadow today. According to a 2014 report by Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity I work for, two in five primary teachers and three in 10 secondary teachers still didn’t know if they were allowed to teach about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues.
And this is not the only point of confusion. People tend to assume that important conversations normalising LGBT identities are happening in sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons. But when you talk to LGBT young people, a different picture emerges.
Metro’s 2014 Youth Chances report surveyed 7,000 young people who identified as LGBT or were questioning their sexuality. It found that 89 per cent learned nothing about bisexuality and 94 per cent learned nothing about transgender issues in school. Two-thirds said that they learned a lot about relationships and safer sex between a man and a woman, but less than 5 per cent said they learned a lot about same-sex relationships and safer sex.
Unprepared for modern life
We know that a lack of formal education in this area can lead people under the age of 18 to use dating websites for LGBT adults to meet other people like them and learn about LGBT life. But schools have a responsibility to ensure that all young people are getting the information they need in order to lead healthy lives.
What’s more, all students will benefit from learning about the spectrum of LGBT identities. Doing so will not only teach them to accept themselves and others but also prepare them for life in modern Britain.
At Stonewall, we are calling for compulsory SRE in all schools that includes age-appropriate lessons on LGBT issues. In primary schools, teachers can use children’s books to talk about different types of families (for suggestions, see Stonewall’s primary books list) or ask pupils to create posters that celebrate differences. They can also challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom by encouraging children to explore how they can all engage with typically gendered activities.
In secondary schools, teachers should continually refer to lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships in SRE and acknowledge trans identities. This works best when it is accompanied by a whole-school approach to tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and language.
The right whole-school policies are crucial to ensuring that both students and staff feel safe to discuss issues around sexual identities. Senior leaders and governors must ensure that the school has reporting structures and policies that specifically reference this type of bullying.
There should be visible signs of celebrating difference throughout the school, and teachers should feel confident in this area. In our work with schools, we have found that senior leaders and governors are instrumental in creating an inclusive learning environment by prioritising the issue and communicating the school’s position with parents.
Schools have a responsibility to promote the wellbeing of pupils, and LGBT-inclusive SRE will help young people to accept themselves and others without exception.
Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton is programmes manager at Stonewall. For more on inclusive SRE, visit the Stonewall resources library