As the government prepares to publish a review of relationships and sex education, following scare-mongering claims around LGBTQ-inclusive content, a teacher explains how students are actually being failed.
Inclusive education seems like a no-brainer after experiencing the positive impact it can have on students. At a time when anti-LGBTQ+ abuse is on the rise, we educators can help students see beyond learned prejudices.
I teach English to secondary-school students, but last year I volunteered to organise an off-timetable day for year 11 pupils with the theme of equality.
While RSE isn’t my subject, I felt it appropriate that the day be organised by someone with experience of inequality – I’m a gay man who has experienced homophobia first-hand.
The content itself was largely factual. We looked at the 2010 Equality Act and the range of characteristics the legislation acknowledges, such as victims of homophobic and transphobic abuse. I also invited an LGBTQ+ speaker to lead a session about proactively supporting victims of prejudice.
During the day, I observed a small part of one of the sessions, led by a history teacher, about sexual orientation. He had committed to explaining bisexuality to a pocket of challenging students who, as I entered the room, claimed that sexuality was a choice.
On the surface, their line of questioning seemed ignorant, but after some sensitive discussion, the students began to understand their misconceptions.
Another student was isolated for calling somebody “gay”, but after a calm conversation, which led to an apology, it seemed that she actually valued learning about LGBTQ+ identities.
Schools are failing on relationships and sex education
Overall, students responded with overwhelming positivity – although it felt to me as if there was too much ground to cover in one day. It’s an issue schools come up against time and again.
The curriculum for relationships, sexual and health education (RHSE) itself outlines students’ entitlement to education addressing mental health and wellbeing, careers, drug use and online behaviours, alongside sexual orientation and gender identity.
Given the demands of a full academic timetable, there is often little room for comprehensive study of these necessary topics. Teachers are usually allocated about 30 minutes a week to deliver RSHE material before having to move on to an entirely different concept the following week.
In March, Tory MP Miriam Cates voiced concerns that teachers are using RSHE to deliver “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders”.
This has prompted an upcoming government review of the topic despite critics suggesting her claims are overblown and politically motivated.
In my experience, these claims are sensationalised. Nobody is teaching students how to give oral sex, and I’m sure that most professional educators would rather give out their personal bank details than talk to a class about “choking” their partner or other sexually explicit material.
I have seen the value of high-quality RSHE education and have witnessed schools struggling to meet its demands. The issue here is not insensitive content being delivered, the issue is that the RSHE curriculum has become a landfill for topics not integrated within the rest of the curriculum.
In my experience, clearer guidance on RSHE would be welcomed. Although many schools in the UK have boasted RSHE-adjacent curriculums for more than a decade, it wasn’t until 2019 that it was made a compulsory subject, during which time the Department for Education (DfE) stated that “schools must comply with the Equality Act, under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are protected characteristics”, adding that “schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point”.
In addition, more robust guidance in schools, to support students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, could help to reduce increasing levels of mental-health concerns. Schools were only offered guidance from the DfE this year to support transgender students, and its contents are concerning, to say the least.
Unfortunately, it seems as if MPs are using this RSHE review to fuel hysteria surrounding gender identity, rather than to genuinely support schools with the effective deliverance of this valuable subject.
With reports of homophobic and transphobic hate crime increasing, and the UK media seemingly in the pockets of right-wing “anti-woke” lobbyists, the RSHE review could be an ideal opportunity to ensure that adequate time and resource is given to these topics and, ultimately, to safeguard our LGBTQ+ students who urgently need it.