LGBT+ Equality and Relationships Education: Creating Inclusive Spaces in our Schools

By Sheza Afzal: sheza@equaliteach.co.uk

Parents are Protesting

Recent media attention has highlighted parents’ protests outside schools last term, with the biggest demonstration at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham. An estimated 200 protesters picketed at the school gates, holding banners and chanting ‘My Child, My Choice’ and ‘Let Kids Be Kids’. Learning was disrupted for 12 weeks until Birmingham City Council was granted a temporary injunction banning all protests around the school zone. The dispute is ongoing as parents are challenging the injunction and are committed to continuing the protests in the autumn term, and there are fears that the protests will spread further afield.

Why are parents angry?

The outcry is about the introduction of new Relationships Education duties in primary schools from September 2020, which will include representing lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships (LGB) and transgender identities. These parents, most of whom are Muslim, have strongly condemned the inclusion of LGBT content, with some concerned that it conflicts with their own personal views of homosexuality and gender and will confuse children, and others who feel it is not age-appropriate and should be left until secondary school. Adding fuel to the fire are misleading explicit pictures and videos circulating amongst social media, purporting to be classroom materials which will be used in the new RSE lessons, stoking fears that children will be exposed to inappropriate, graphic sexual content and ‘encouraged’ or ‘taught’ to be gay or transgender. Some Christian, Orthodox Jewish and socially conservative groups have expressed similar concerns, fearing the content will encourage the sexualisation of young children and propagate the idea that you can whimsically chose your gender.

What does the new Relationships and Sex Education actually include?

For many schools, it will not depart from the content they are already teaching. Parents/carers will still be able to opt their child out of sex education at primary level; but Relationships Education will be compulsory. The aim of Relationships Education at primary level is to teach children the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships and to accept and respect others. This includes different types of families: single parents, those brought up by grandparents or relatives, foster or adoptive parents, and same-sex parents and includes teaching about different gender identities, helping young people to reject stereotypes, feel free to be themselves and treat others with kindness, consideration and respect. The focus of this education is not on sex or sexual activity. The aim is that no-one should feel ashamed of their family, and every child should know they are all valued and treated respectfully. The content and materials used in these lessons can be viewed by parents and carers beforehand, who are encouraged to ask questions and raise concerns in what government guidance has termed a ‘consultation’; however, parents/carers cannot veto and ultimate content choice lies with the school.

Whose Rights Matter?

Much of the problem seems to lie in the framing of the debate as a competition of rights: religious rights versus LGBT+ rights, or the erosion of parental rights to educate their children, but this is a fallacy. Most parents/carers of all religions wholeheartedly agree with the importance of treating others with respect and tolerance precisely because it chimes with their religious values. Both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have issued guidance aimed at supporting schools to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying.  EqualiTeach is running a project called Free to Be, working with primary schools across London to support them to promote LGBT+ equality and tackle HBT bullying. We have found that when concerned parents/carers feel they are listened to, when they are given the opportunity to learn more about the work and to view the resources to be used in advance, fears are often abated.

Equality work is about fostering mutual respect and tolerance and ensuring there is space for everyone in our communities, which means according all groups respect and recognition. The harm caused by being invisible, of never seeing yourself represented  is well-documented and can be hugely detrimental to young people. It is not conducive to creating a society that strives to be inclusive and to treat everyone with respect.

Moving Forward

This issue has been characterised so far by a lack of clear information which has allowed misinformation to be spread, sowing confusion, fuelling fears and inflaming tempers. This has made it hard for sincere dialogue between schools and parents/carers, and this has been compounded by the lack of vocal official support from the Department for Education (DfE), who legislated for these changes and then passed the burden of rolling it out onto schools. Some schools report feeling abandoned, and just before the start of the summer break 50 MPs sent separate letters to education secretary Damian Hinds, urging the government to support schools more transparently in carrying out this work. The DfE is now working on additional guidance to support schools to engage effectively with parents/carers and alleviate concerns.

Whilst it is unlikely this issue will be resolved soon, it is important to remember that sexual orientation and gender reassignment are two of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, alongside seven others, including religion, and so there is a legal duty for schools to eliminate discrimination and harassment towards LGBT+ people and communities, and this work is especially important when you consider LGBT+ people have some of the highest rates of self-harm, suicide and mental illness. Gay marriage has been legal in the UK since 2014 and there are primary age children who have same-sex or transgender parents, family and friends and who are exploring their own sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, discussing love, relationships and families in schools without any reference to LGBT+ content is doing young people a disservice and preventing primary schools from being the safe, diverse and inclusive spaces that young people need in order to thrive.

To read a parent’s perspective on exploring difference with children see our other blog: Why children and young people need opportunities to explore difference

If you are interested in being involved with EqualiTeach’s Free to Be project please contact Sarah Soyei – sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

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