Nearly half of LGBT+ pupils are bullied in school because of their gender or sexual orientation. In fact, LGBT+ bullying is the most common type of bullying in schools. Just 27% of secondary school pupils believe it would be safe to come out as LGBT+ in their schools.
Despite this, a 2020 report shows that only one-fifth of secondary school students report learning about LGBT+ identities and homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.
While schools are now required to teach LGBT+ content as part of Relationships and Sex Education, guidance from the Department of Education leaves it up to schools how and when they approach this content. There is no specific mention of the need to tackle bullying aimed at LGBT+ pupils as part of the curriculum.
The content of LGBT+ education needs to be standardised across schools, and a more explicit stance needs to be taken against anti-LGBT+ bullying.
Protecting the wellbeing of young people is hugely important, and teenagers from sexual minorities are more likely than their peers to suffer from mental health problems. The experience of discrimination at a young age can have long-term implications for people’s mental health. In the short term, being bullied in school affects pupils’ attendance and educational performance.
However, funding for LGBT+ anti-bullying projects in English schools, provided by the Government Equalities Office, was withdrawn in March 2020. Since September 2020, Relationships Education is a compulsory subject in primary schools, while Relationships and Sex Education is compulsory in secondary schools. Schools are required to teach “LGBT content” as part of this new curriculum.
The explicit reference to LGBT+ content is laudable, given that the previous curriculum does not mention this at all. But the curriculum guidance leaves it up to schools to determine how and when they teach LGBT+ content. The only specification is that it must be taught at a “timely point”. The guidance continues to make allowances for religious schools to teach in accordance with their faith perspectives.
In principle, then, a school could get away with teaching very little about LGBT+ inclusivity, on the basis that it was not timely nor appropriate to do so with their pupils. For example, the Catholic Education Service’s Model Curriculum for Secondary Schools, which has been cited as an example of good practice by Nick Gibb, the minister of state for School Standards, merely discusses the need to teach about diversity in sexual attraction and developing sexuality, but makes no mention of LGBT+ content.
We cannot assume that all schools will offer comprehensive teaching on LGBT+ identities, especially when the guidance is vague. A further issue is that some teachers still feel they need more support to teach LGBT+ inclusive relationships and sex education.
A missing focus
Also, while the new curriculum guidance makes some reference to anti-bullying education, the emphasis falls mainly on cyberbullying, rather than LGBT+ bullying. Schools are required to identify any homophobic incidents and to deal with them appropriately. But beyond this, there is no specific mention of the need to tackle homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying as part of the curriculum.
The Government Equalities Office has claimed that it is “misleading” to state that the government has de-prioritised anti-LGBT+ bullying, because the Department for Education has awarded £750,000 to three charitable organisations for anti-bullying projects. The three organisations are the Diana Award, the Anne Frank Trust and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, none of which are LGBT-specific.
The lack of suitable emphasis on LGBT+ content, coupled with the withdrawal of funding for anti-bullying projects in schools that are specific to LGBT+ students, reflects a deliberate stance on the part of the government to sit on the fence, perhaps due to the contentious nature of the subject matter.
In 2019, parental protests erupted over the “No Outsiders” programme – which aimed to teach children about the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 (including, but not limited to, sexual orientation). The government’s lack of clarity on their expectations for schools’ teaching on LGBT+ topics was highlighted by the National Association of Head Teachers.
LGBT+ anti-bullying projects are needed alongside LGBT+ education under the new relationships and sex education curriculum in order to truly embed short and long-term positive changes for the LGBT+ pupils. The government can no longer afford to take a back seat on this.