Last month, MPs in the UK voted in favour of inclusive sex and relationship education for primary school children which included covering topics relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people. It has been an ongoing conversation amongst teachers and education policymakers, with both parents and schools questioning the best way to cater for the needs of LGBT+ pupils and their families at school. This vote, however, took place against a backdrop of protests at a primary school in Birmingham from parents who were against their children being taught inclusive sex and relationship education. These parents claim they are protecting the interests of their children, but many would argue that their actions are doing more harm than good.
The UK’s track record for the discussion of LGBT+ topics in the classroom remains poor. Perhaps the most cited educational policy is Section 28. The piece of legislation, brought in under Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988, banned the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. At the time, it was argued that it would protect traditional family values in the country. The policy was repealed throughout the whole of the UK by 2003, yet many LGBT+ people educated under its reign continue to live with its negative effects today.
Since then, schools have been in somewhat of a policy limbo when it comes to teaching young people about LGBT+ topics. Locally, some schools have taken it upon themselves to take active steps to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying, working with either local or national LGBT+ charities. Then, the government body of school inspectors, Ofsted, made it clear that homophobia, transphobia and other discrimination of minorities groups had no place in UK schools. They encouraged schools to draw-up and implement policies relating to combatting these issues.
Although this was a positive step towards reducing the number of LGBT+ students being bullied, I would argue that it fell short of providing these students with an inclusive education. When it comes to sex and relationship education, for example, many primary schools still do not discuss LGBT+ topics with their students. This results in pupils with LGBT+ families feeling excluded from their school community - and may leave students questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity with unanswered questions.
We know that young people who identify as LGBT+ are disproportionately affected by poor mental health when compared with the wider population. Stonewall, the UK’s biggest LGBT+ charity, argues that poor mental health and bullying at school go hand-in-hand. Rates of depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts are all higher for LGBT+ pupils, emphasising the seriousness of bullying and discrimination, especially towards younger people. And for pupils not facing bullying at school, outside factors like homophobic family households or transphobic messages in the media may also have a negative impact on their emotional wellbeing.
Regarding LGBT+ students in high school, there is an overwhelming number that are leaving school without accurate or appropriate sex education. This leaves LGBT+ students to educate themselves about how to form healthy and happy relationships. Sex education in the UK is still too heavily focused on a heterosexual model, resulting in young LGBT+ people not receiving the information they need to make informed decisions about their sexual health. Rates of sexually transmitted infections are on the increase amongst young people, and this is not exception for young LGBT+ people. It seems clear that by not educating LGBT+ youths about these topics, schools are doing them a disservice.
But approaching these discussions is something that schools seem to be nervous about. The recent example of parents forming a picket line outside of a primary school in Birmingham just helps to illustrates how not all parents are in agreement with an inclusive education for all. Their argument is that they are ‘protecting’ their children, yet this feels as though they are simply regurgitating the thinking behind Section 28, which did the opposite of protecting young people.
Religious and cultural views are also drawn upon, suggesting that religious leaders also need to be included in the conversation around introducing LGBT+ topics in the classroom. I am yet to hear an argument that has not been born from prejudice or stigma towards LGBT+ people, which leaves me thinking that homophobia and transphobia in a school community extends wider than the school gates. And perhaps these schools need to be working with parents as well as their pupils.
It is clear that there is a lot of ground work that still needs to be done before all young LGBT+ people are able to feel accepted in school, as well as having an inclusive education. Perhaps turning to our European neighbours may provide some hope in building a more tolerant and accepting society. The Dutch approach to sex and relationship education is often referenced when discussing LGBT-inclusive education. Children are taught at a young age about inclusivity and acceptance towards LGBT+ people and families, doubtlessly reducing prejudice towards this group in the wider society.
The harmful impact of anti-LGBT+ discrimination on young people is beyond question. From mental health to sexual health, and generally feeling accepted in society, LGBT+ young people continue to live with the negative effects of feeling excluded at school. In the UK, it is clear that LGBT+ students have been let down by the education system, against a backdrop of tension between parents and teachers. Although education takes place in the classroom, it could be argued that schools also need to work to educate the parent community about the importance of teaching tolerance and acceptance at a young age.
This change, however, can only take place with the backing of the government. It must form a driving force to enable schools to build more bridges with their local communities, as a means of enabling positive change for LGBT+ students.
Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist