Teaching about LGBT in English schools: how the arrival of mandatory Relationships and Sex Education has been used to divide schools and the communities they serve

Whilst Parliament has been gridlocked and cleaved down the middle by Brexit, a few weeks ago it quietly voted 538 MPs in favour and 21 against to update the regulations on the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) in England. Following four months consultation and debating the petition which sought to assert parents’ right to teach their children RSE topics – or at least who teaches them and what is taught, Parliament endorsed the introduction of mandatory RSE in secondary schools and relationships education in primary from September 2020.

The debate was illuminating because it teased out the full spectrum of MPs’ views, mirroring those of their constituents. They ranged from unequivocal support for this subject to be taught through to strengthening parents’ rights to remove their children from sex education. The fulcrum of MPs’ concerns was, unsurprisingly, “the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues” which some members saw as “contested territory between the protected characteristics of the Equalities Act” They wanted to know how school and parent disagreements would be resolved and what constituted the “exceptional circumstances” in which secondary aged pupils could be withdrawn from sex education. Religious beliefs and cultural tenets from Christianity, Islam and Judaism were invoked.

The debate was well-informed and courteously received in the best of parliamentary traditions. A far contrast from events on the streets of Saltley, an inner-city area of Birmingham. Noisy, aggressive demonstrations have been occurring regularly outside Parkfield School because it, like a number of schools in the city, teaches the No Outsiders materials. They were written by Assistant Headteacher, Andy Moffat. Inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu’s quote that, “in God’s family there are no outsiders”, Moffat wrote the books with the aim of teaching primary age children about all groups protected by the Equalities Act 2010.

Erudite debate in the House and protests in the street which showed the odd homophobic chant revealed the jagged intersection between the role of the state to educate its children and young people about RSE, the role of the family, and religious beliefs. LGBT issues continue to exercise some conservative politicians and religious leaders 52 years after homosexuality was decriminalised for men over 21 years old. 

In Birmingham matters have become polarised. Headteachers are caught in the middle. If they continue to teach No Outsiders, or a close variation, their schools are the target of religious conservatives who claim to represent their community even though there is no way to legitimate that status. If heads suspend teaching No Outsiders whilst local consultation takes place, they are seen to have capitulated. There is immense pressure on local schools and little direct guidance or overt support from the Department for Education until recently. There can be no selectivity with regard to which equalities you teach and which you don’t but the current imbroglio needs to end quickly.. 

Polarisation is not a healthy or sustainable position. Respect, tolerance and non-judgement are all at a premium. The deliberate misrepresentation by protestors is not representative of how the great majority of Birmingham’s schools teach about equalities and LGBT in particular. Since 2014, the city’s education system has been recovering from the impact of the Trojan Horse crisis when many pupils were not taught safely and inclusively. The bedrock for the recovery has been the adoption of the UNICEF Rights Respecting Award (RRA) by over 250 schools. The RRA has worked so well in the city because it provides a framework that enables nursery aged children through to sixth formers to understand their place in family, community, school and the world. Learning about the 42 Children’s Rights is the basis upon which children grow towards making informed choices about their lives. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and its articles are silent on sexuality (although clear about sexual exploitation) but rich on freedom of thought, association and the right to education.

It will take a long time to defuse the hateful rhetoric spouted on the streets of Saltley. School leaders will need support from local and national agencies for the foreseeable future. And England can learn from the huge progress made in Birmingham in recent years to teach LGBT issues inclusively and safely. There is no silver bullet here, rather a complex and sensitive range of teaching materials that are bound by the universal DNA of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. 

Professor Colin Diamond CBE, School of Education, Professor of Educational Leadership.

 *Prof Colin Diamond will be addressing these issues as the first speaker at the Inaugural Anthony Grey Lecture at Magdalene College, Cambridge 16 April

*He recently wrote We must learn from Trojan Horse history in Birmingham published in Schools  Week Friday 22 March