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Relationships and sex education review: government must remember history of LGBTQ+ discrimination in English schools

Sex education in English schools is under scrutiny. A review of relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) brought forward by prime minister Rishi Sunak, will lead to new statutory guidance by the end of 2023. Sunak has also stated that schools will receive guidance on transgender issues for the 2023 summer term.

Sunak’s acceleration of the RSHE education review came after Miriam Cates MP voiced concerns over “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate” sex education. Cates also presented Sunak with a report outlining concerns that lessons were “promoting” trans identification and gave a “disproportionately dominant” place to LGBTQ+ topics.

Rhetoric like this threatens to undermine the positive progress that has been made in sex education in schools – and represents another chapter in the fraught history of LGBTQ+ education.

There are decades of evidence showing the value of comprehensive and inclusive relationships and sex education for all young people, not just those who identify as LGBTQ+. We need to listen to what young people want and need and educating about diversity and gender is vital – a point emphasised by one of us (Dr. Sophie King-Hill) at an evidence session for the Women and Equalities Committee on the teaching of Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in schools, held on 10 May 2023.

The introduction of statutory relationships and sex education in 2020 was a key step towards the provision of LGBTQ+ inclusive education in England. For the first time, secondary schools were required to provide “clear, sensitive and respectful” teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Section 28

This move was the most recent measure to undo the damage caused to LGBTQ+ education by Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. Section 28 stated that the local authority should not “intentionally promote homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

The legislation dealt a severe blow to the LGBTQ+ community. Before this, valuable steps towards equality had been made. Homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 and the first Pride march in the UK took place in 1972. In the early 1980s, the Greater London Council had a strong position on gay rights, establishing the Gay Rights Working Party in 1981 to investigate issues relating to gay Londoners. This was discontinued in 1986 when the Greater London Council was dissolved.

Nevertheless, the passing of Section 28 came at a peak of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the UK, when 64% of the population believed being gay was “always wrong”. In practice, this meant that any already limited engagement with LGBTQ+ topics at schools disappeared.

Years of influence

Section 28 informed the sex and relationships guidance for English schools issued in 2000. While this guidance made attempts to include sexual orientation, the legacy of section 28 meant the inclusion of LGBTQ+ sexualities was left up to schools – and schools were told to give “no direct promotion of sexual orientation”.

Section 28 normalised discrimination and fostered the bullying of young people in the LGBTQ+ community. It lead to over 20 years of sporadic or neglected coverage of LGBTQ+ identities within schools. Section 28 was finally repealed in England in 2003.

The integration of LGBTQ+ relationships and sex education content in schools has faced significant barriers. The teaching of the LGBTQ+ inclusive education programme “No Outsiders” lessons at a Birmingham primary school in 2019 met notable opposition from parents, forcing the school to suspend delivery of the lessons.

The introduction of statutory RSE in 2020 marked a step in the right direction. By the age of 18, young people are expected to be aware of damaging stereotypes surrounding sexual and gender identity.

Uneven provision

However, despite this statutory guidance, LGBTQ+ provision in secondary schools is not comprehensive. A 2022 poll found that only 31% of students identifying as LGBTQ+ rated their relationships and sex education lessons as “good” or “very good”.

Teacher at front of classroom
Many students do not feel they receive good teaching on LGBTQ+ issues. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The 2020 statutory guidance also leaves significant room for inconsistency in LGBTQ+ provision within faith schools. As with all secondary schools, faith schools are now required to teach content on same-sex relationships.

However, as highlighted within Ofsted’s inspection guidance regarding protected characteristics, faith schools are still permitted to teach “that same sex relationships and gender reassignment are not permitted by a particular religion” – though they must also explain the “legal rights LGBT people have under UK law, and that this and LGBT people must be respected”.

A 2017 survey by the charity Stonewall of over 3,700 LGBTQ+ young people found that only one in ten of these students at faith schools had received information on safe sex in LGBTQ+ relationships. One in five students at secular schools reported receiving this information.

Schools have a role to play in reducing discrimination against LGBTQ+ young people. Research has found that transgender and gender-diverse young people face significant discrimination in UK schools.

The government’s guidance for schools on transgender issues and on sex education must not undo the progress that has been made.

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