By Tammy Naidoo: firstname.lastname@example.org
The government’s call for evidence as part of their review of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools closed earlier this month. The call for evidence has been made to inform the production of statutory guidelines after The Children and Social Work Act 2017 made Relationships Education in primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education in secondary schools mandatory. Until now, only pupils at maintained secondary schools have been guaranteed Relationships and Sex Education, however, from September 2019 all academies, free schools, independent schools and primary schools will also have to provide age-appropriate lessons about relationships for young people. The previous RSE guidance was written in 2000, three years before the abolition of Section 28 and doesn’t mention LGBT issues at all.
Former education secretary Justine Greening, who has been leading this review has said, “It is unacceptable that relationships and sex education guidance has not been updated for almost 20 years, especially given the online risks, such as sexting and cyber bullying, our children and young people face. Young people must have an education that teaches them the importance of healthy and stable relationships”
This reform promises an end to an outdated piecemeal approach to RSE that has failed to fully address the needs of students. But what will it mean for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, whose experiences and concerns are largely excluded from current RSE provision?
Currently, over half of secondary school students say they never have any discussion of LGBT relationships in their lessons, and over half of LGBT young people are bullied in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These are worrying statistics, which show how many LGBT students have been isolated within their own schools.
Ruth Hunt, chief executive of the LGBT campaigning charity Stonewall, said: “Schools that teach LGBT-inclusive RSE are in the minority, leaving many LGBT young people without the information they need to make safe, informed decisions.”.
Because of the lack of education that they receive in schools many LGBT young people turn to the internet, or the scene to try to find out the information that they need, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation and abuse.
Statutory guidelines, which promote an LGBT inclusive curriculum will mean that LGBT young people feel included and recognised in their schools, are able to build safer, more informed relationships, and will have more access to support.
Some may question why LGBT inclusive Relationships and Sex education should be mandatory in schools given that most students in a class will not be LGBT. LGBT inclusive RSE will benefit everyone, increasing the knowledge and understanding of pupils who have LGBT friends and family, and decreasing stereotypes, prejudice and bullying of LGBT young people.
There is also reticence to the idea of the mention of LGBT issues at primary level with 37 per cent of primary school teachers still reporting that they don’t know whether they are allowed to teach about LGB issues. However, talking about sexual orientation and gender identity means talking about relationships, families, love and identity, not sex. Primary pupils may not be aware of their own sexual orientation or gender identity but will have LGBT family members and friends. Homophobia and transphobia exists in primary schools and is often targeted against pupils who are seen to be different in some way. It is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010 for schools to be fostering good relations, so not only are primary teachers allowed to talk about LGBT issues, they have a duty to do so.
Finally, there has been discussion of the implications for religious schools. Provisional advice from the government states that schools will be able to exercise flexibility over how to teach a topic, not whether to teach it. Schools have flexibility to deliver an RSE programme that is consistent with their values. However, they also have a responsibility to uphold children and young people’s rights to accurate information, safety, health and well-being and anti-discriminatory practice.
Parents and carers, , will still retain the right to withdraw their children from RSE, an issue which some gay rights campaigners, such as Peter Tatchell have strongly disagreed with.
“Upholding the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education at secondary level is a harmful concession that will deprive withdrawn pupils of access to information and support vital for their sexual and emotional health. It will put them at greater risk of unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexual infections, including HIV” (Peter Tatchell speaking to the telegraph)
However, good relationships with parents/carers reduce the chances of pupils being removed from RSE. After viewing the materials, only around 4 in 10,000 parents choose to withdraw their children. Therefore, it will be crucial that schools maintain good relationships with parents and carers, consult with them on their views and keep them informed of the approach that the school is taking in order to keep more children in RSE.
This reform has been welcomed by the National Education Union (NEU), which represents more than 450,000 school teachers, leaders and support staff, but the NEU has warned new guidance will have little impact if the government does not invest more in teaching, with only a third of teachers thinking that their schools will be ready to deliver the new curriculum in 2019.
Dr Mary Bousted, the union’s joint general secretary, said effective relationships and sex education would require investment in training for teachers.
“[The government] also needs to ensure schools have high-quality resources and enough time in the school curriculum to teach sex and relationships education,”
The call for evidence has had high number of responses from parents, young people, teachers and other organisations involved with young people and has the potential to create very real change. The Department for Education has committed to considering all of the evidence and has stated that they are clear that their plans need to involve determining what support schools will need to deliver these subjects well, with a commitment to publishing draft proposals for consultation in due course. We await the revised guidance with cautious optimism.
You can view Equaliteach’s response to the call for evidence here.