Free to Be: The importance of LGBT+ inclusive primary schools

By Sarah Soyei: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

“Is it morally right for 5-year-old children to learn about LGBT issues in school?”

BBC Question Time, Thursday 28th March 2019

“Should transgender people be sterilised before they are recognised?

The Economist on Twitter, Tuesday 18th March 2019

The past decade has seen many huge advances in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) equality in the UK: The Equality Act, equal marriage, high profile trans people excelling and being celebrated in their fields, consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act and, most recently, this week’s historic vote for LGBT-inclusive, compulsory Relationships and Sex Education.

However, the path to equality doesn’t run smooth, and recent events have shown that there is no place for complacency, that victories won are not necessarily assured forever and there is still a long way to go.

Parents have been campaigning at Parkfield school in Birmingham about its ‘No Outsiders’ programme, which has been designed to ensure that no-one feels like an outsider in the school. The programme is designed to help children to build understanding and acceptance of all of the different protected characteristics under the Equality Act, including religion or belief, race and ethnicity, and disability as well as LGBT+. However, some parents are protesting outside the school and withdrawing their children, claiming that the programme ‘promotes gay and transgender lifestyles’ and is ‘exploiting children’s innocence.’

There have also been sustained attacks on the rights of transgender young people. Earlier this year The Big Lottery was forced to review a grant to the charity Mermaids which works to support gender non-conforming young people, after a newspaper article and sustained campaign by Mumsnet. The outcome of the review was that the allegations against the charity was baseless and that the grant was awarded. However, in the meantime, transgender young people and families’ right to exist and be accepted was called into question again.

The debate has become so toxic, that even respected, mainstream media such as the BBC and the Economist feel that it is OK to debate LGBT+ people’s human rights. It is imperative that this is not allowed to continue. LGBT+ people exist, letting children know and accept that is not a moral question, any more than teaching them that different religions, ethnicities and disabilities exist.

It is in this climate that EqualiTeach is embarking on our Free to Be programme – working with 30 primary schools in London over the course of a year to help them to promote LGBT+ equality and tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. We are delighted to have received funding from Government Equalities Office to provide an intensive package of support to help schools strengthen policies, to train all staff and to work with schools to improve their curriculum and environment.

We are pleased to report that many schools are excited at the opportunity to have support in ensuring that they are creating safe and inclusive settings for all pupils, staff and families and we have less than a handful of places left on the programme.

Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic (HBT) bullying is a live issue in primary schools, which blights the lives of many children. 70% of primary school teachers hear expressions like ‘that’s so gay’ in school. Almost half of primary school teachers say that children in their school experience homophobic bullying and this bullying is closely linked to ideas of how girls and boys are expected to look and behave. Children start policing gender stereotypes from a very young age.

Older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people say that their school lives would have been transformed if their primary school had spoken about the issue and created an inclusive environment where HBT bullying was not tolerated.

Many objections to schools undertaking work on LGBT+ equality are based on misunderstandings as to what is involved. School are not ‘promoting’ being LGBT, and not talking to young children about sex.

The discussion at primary level is about families and allowing young people to be who they are. Letting children know that some families have two mums, and some have two dads; that a woman can marry another woman, or a man can marry a man is no more ‘promoting being gay’ or ‘removing children’s innocence’ than telling children that some families have a mum and a dad and that a man can marry a woman. But, ensures that children who have same-sex parents feel included, reduces bullying, allows children who are discovering their own orientation to feel accepted, and ensures that same-sex parents do not feel invisible in school.

Challenging gender stereotypes, allowing children to choose whichever clothes they wish from the dressing up box, enjoy whichever hobbies and after-school clubs they choose and stopping segregating children by boys and girls benefits all young people.

Working in partnership with parents and carers is the ideal approach. Often when schools consult with parents and carers and offer them the opportunity to come in to discuss concerns and see the resources used, concerns are allayed. But, ultimately, schools must be firm that they must serve all sectors of the school community, create a safe, inclusive environment for all young people and it is their legal duty to undertake this work. 

Under the Equality Act 2010 schools have had a duty to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who are LGBT+ and those that are not.

Ofsted has said that it is important that primary schools are engaging with this issue:

“It’s about making sure that children who do happen to realise that they themselves may not fit a conventional pattern, know that they are not bad, they are not ill.” Amanda Spielman, 2019.

Finally, from September 2020 pupils in primary school must learn about various family models, including same-sex relationships, in Relationships Education. This isn’t an issue that schools can afford to ignore. Let us all work together to ensure that in the future LGBT+ people’s existence is no longer up for debate, and that all young people are growing up in an environment where they feel included, accepted and free to be. If you are interested in finding out more about EqualiTeach’s fully funded Free to Be programme in London primary schools please e-mail sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

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