Recent reports have suggested that Section 28-style bans on the promotion of homosexuality are on the rise in UK schools, causing concern among teachers' unions.
Based on research by the British Humanist Association in 2013, a small minority of schools have been using an out-of-date policy template for sex education, harking back to the Section 28 clause introduced in the 1988 Local Government Act which forbade schools from intentionally promoting homosexuality. The clause was overturned in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK in 2003.
Regardless of whether the schools intended to have such a policy, it is a serious concern that schools could forbid “the promotion of homosexuality” in contemporary Britain. While it seems that only a marginal number of schools actually have such a policy – and most did so inadvertently – the incident highlights issues around the school system and sex education more generally.
No return to Section 28
It is first important to recognise that we are not returning to a Section 28 era. The vast majority of schools have anti-bullying policies that condemn homophobic bullying and equalities policies that protect sexual orientation and gender identity – as required by Ofsted and the 2010 Equalities Act.
With the introduction of same-sex marriage this year, homophobic perspectives are no longer enshrined in English law. Furthermore, the majority of those schools that were found to be in contravention of these requirements swiftly altered their policies.
The response to this debate is also instructive of improving attitudes toward homosexuality. Whereas Section 28 was popular among members of the public and politicians at the time, there has been an outcry related to the return of similar policies, with senior politicians across all major parties condemning them.
Conservative ministers state that homophobic bullying is unacceptable and the government has recently funded a large-scale project to combat homophobic, bi-phobic and trans-phobic bullying in schools.
Different rules for different schools
Yet while we are not approaching a return of Section 28-style prohibitions, two key implications deserve further scrutiny.
There is an inherent problem in having a segmented educational system under which some schools are compelled to teach sex education and others are not.
At the moment, maintained secondary schools must teach sex education with a curriculum that includes information about puberty, anatomy, reproduction, and HIV and AIDS, in a manner that promotes inclusive attitudes and supports diversity. Maintained schools are also encouraged to teach these topics within a context of relationships and social interaction.
However, academies, free schools and faith schools are currently exempt from these laws, and they have a great deal of freedom on how to teach sex education.
In addition to polling evidence showing that this policy is opposed by the public, it cannot be acceptable that a child’s education about sex and relationships is determined by the chance factor of what type of school they attend.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are not able to select a school based on the type of sex education that is available. It is essential that all schools protect and support their sexual minority students.
New curriculum needed
While it is vital that sex education is taught in schools, it is also evident that the sex education that we currently have is not fit for purpose. With this in mind, a national inquiry into sex and relationships education in schools has just been launched by parliament.
The recommendations of this inquiry must, however, move beyond a “prevention and plumbing” model of sex education that is based upon a medicalised framework of risk, where sex is seen as risky and sexuality an inherent threat to a fanciful notion of childhood innocence.
It is not enough, for example, for a new sex education curriculum to simply include discussion of porn and sexting, and how to navigate the supposed dangers of these phenomena. Rather, it needs to recognise the pleasurable aspects of sex, sexuality and desire, in a manner that does not solely measure the risks of sexual activity without acknowledging the rewards.
But more than this, we need to move beyond sex education to sexuality education that engages with the centrality of sexuality to social life. From Shakespeare’s sonnets to episodes of Eastenders, and from Rihanna’s latest single to a Tchaikovsky symphony, we are more rounded, fully realised people when we are able to engage with sexuality in a mature and sophisticated manner.
We are no longer in a world of straight and gay, but one where sexual diversity incorporates bisexuals, transgender people, mostly straights, and many more. In contemporary Britain, we know that a return to Section 28 would be pernicious and akin to the homophobia of Putin’s Russia. The next step is for us to realise that open and informed discussion of sexuality benefits us all – and that such education needs to start at school.