By Jennifer Moses, National Official (Equality and Training), NASUWT
The NASUWT Teachers’ Union is fully committed to the belief that all students and teachers should be free to teach and learn in an inclusive environment that respects LGBTI* rights. We strongly believe that an inclusive education environment for pupils and students must also be a safe and inclusive space for all school staff, particularly those that are LGBTI.
Monday was the international day against homophobia transphobia and biphobia and a new study released by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report and the LGBTQI youth organisation (IGLYO), finds that over half of LGBTI students in Europe have reported being bullied at school.
The UNESCO paper rightly recognises the failure of some education establishments to address discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and intersex variations. Sadly, evidence from engagement with our LGBTI members and surveys, shows that schools and colleges throughout the UK are ill-equipped to challenge homophobic/biphobic/transphobic bullying and harassment, creating hostile environments for many pupils and staff. At our recent LGBTI Teachers’ Conference, 36% said that these incidences had worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic with many seeing a rise in homophobic and hateful language being used online. One member states,
“Homophobia, when I returned to school in September, directed towards myself was worse than ever. I started keeping a diary and on some days there were as many as four incidences of homophobic language/taunts/comments.”
In terms of teaching, much recent attention in England has focused on the extent to which LGBT+-related issues are reflected meaningfully and sufficiently in the curriculum offer schools make to their children and young people.
The history of LGBT+ education in England’s schools is complex and difficult. In recent decades, the issue has been dominated by the impact of what became known as ‘Section 28’. This was legislation passed in 1988 which established that schools ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
This writing into law of explicit discrimination against LGBT+ persons and communities had a profoundly negative impact on the experiences of children and young people in schools and was a concrete manifestation of the unequal status of LGBT+ people in wider society. The legislation was so ambiguously worded that it had a chilling effect on schools and meant that, very often, schools did not feel that they were permitted to provide genuinely inclusive learning environments or take purposeful action to tackle discrimination and prejudice and promote equality and diversity.
‘Section 28’ was eventually repealed in 2003 but it left a legacy in England’s education system in which the equal status of LGBT+ persons and communities was not reflected in schools’ educational offers in many cases, with clear negative implications for children and young people and for the cause of LGBT+ equality more generally.
The statutory guidance on relationships and sex education (RSE) in England had not been updated since 2000 until a revised version was enacted last year. The previous guidance was silent on LGBT+-related issues. While entirely legitimate criticisms of the revised guidance for not doing enough to address discrimination against LGBT+ persons and communities and to support the promotion of equality can, and do, continue to be made, it is difficult not to regard the revision of the framework for relationships and sex education in schools as a clear step in the right direction.
In particular, the statutory guidance, which applies to all schools, makes clear that ‘in teaching Relationships Education and RSE, schools should ‘ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met, and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect’. It also states that the Government ‘expect[s] all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum’.
This reform to the framework for LGBT+ education is at a relatively early stage of implementation and it will be important for all stakeholders, including Government, trade unions and advocacy and rights groups, to continue to monitor the extent to which it provides schools with the scope to address LGBT+-related content more effectively and comprehensively than has often been the case in the past. Specific attention will need to be given to the quality and quantity of training and support made available to staff in schools and to their ability to access sources of effective external expertise and advice.
More broadly, while changes to RSE are important, it also clear that more work needs to be done to ensure that LGBT+ issues are reflected more consistently and prominently in the wider school curriculum.
We strongly commend the recommendation from UNESCO report for increased investment in teacher capacity to deliver inclusive curricula and for tackling LGBTI bullying and harassment.
We must continue to fight for a safe and inclusive learning and teaching environment around the world for all LGBT pupils and school staff if we truly believe that LGBTI rights are human rights.
*The NASUWT has adopted the universally recognised term of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI). This should be seen as an inclusive term for all LGBT+ people and communities.