Make sex education compulsory & LGBT-inclusive

Labour proposals are good but don’t go far enough

By Peter Tatchell


Labour plans on gay sex education & homophobic bullying need to go further
International Business Times – London, UK – 5 February 2015


UK: Labour has announced its commitment to shake-up sex education and anti-bullying programmes in schools. The party’s Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, wants to make age-appropriate, gay-inclusive sex and relationship education compulsory and ensure that all teachers are trained to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.

Set out in the report, End homophobic bullying together – Supporting LGBT young people and teachers, this is a good move and much needed.

Explaining why these proposals will be a “priority” for the next Labour government, Mr Hunt said: “No young person should ever feel that their sexuality or gender identity prevents them from fulfilling their potential.”

The new policy will apply to all state-funded primary and secondary schools – including faith and academy schools – but not independents. Excluding the independent sector strikes me as a mistake. Surely it’s time there were minimum uniform standards in all schools?

The problem of sexual orientation and gender identity bullying is huge and often ignored, as revealed in Cambridge University research published by the gay lobby group Stonewall.

The School Report (2012), looked at the bullying of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) pupils (trans pupils were regrettably not included). It found that 55% of LGB young people have suffered bullying on account of their sexuality and 99% have heard homophobic language.

Astonishingly, one in three teachers report hearing homophobic remarks from other staff, according to The Teacher’s Report (Stonewall, 2014). Some LGB teachers are victims of teasing and bullying by pupils because of their sexuality.

Only half of LGB young people say their school has told pupils that homophobic bullying is wrong. This falls to 37% in faith schools. Many teachers do nothing to combat anti-LGB bullying. They tell pupils to be discreet, man-up and be less sensitive. This is not the tough stand that most teaching staff adopt towards racist bullying. Double standards!

LGB pupils who are bullied are at a higher risk of depression, self-harm and suicide. Forty-one per cent have attempted or considered taking their own life because of bullying and a similar number say bullying has caused them to self-harm. The School Report found that one in four young LGB people had actually tried to commit suicide; rising to nearly half among trans youth.

This week Stonewall estimated there are 215,000 LGB school pupils. As a result of anti-LGB bullying, 52,000 of these pupils will truant from school; 37,000 will change their future education plans; and 70,000 will suffer deterioration in their school work.

For all these reasons, Labour’s anti-bullying proposals, which echo similar policies by the Greens and the Lib Dems, are welcome and appreciated. So, too, are its plans to make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory and inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pupils.

Good timing. Last week the National Union of Students (NUS) published a survey of 2,500 university students, which showed that SRE is failing all pupils, both LGBT and heterosexual.

Two-thirds reported that consent and abuse issues were never discussed. More than half said their lessons did not cover emotions and relationships. Under 20% received SRE that mentioned LGBT issues.

SRE standards are so poor that 60% of students said they accessed pornography to find out about sex, with 40% saying it helped their sexual knowledge and understanding.

The mostly low quality of SRE has terrible consequences, including unhappy and abusive relationships, lack of sexual fulfilment, unwanted pregnancies and abortions and unacceptable levels of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

That’s why SRE delivery must be improved. This requires a nationwide minimum curriculum content for SRE lessons, specialist training in teaching SRE and action to ensure that all school staff understand LGBT issues and support LGBT pupils.

The one issue the new Labour initiative side-steps is the current right of parents to withdraw their children from SRE if they object to them receiving information about reproduction, safer sex, LGBT issues, contraception and abortion.

Why should parents be able to deny their children the right to information to debunk ignorance and prejudice and to ensure they have happy, healthy sexual and emotional lives?

I thought school was about preparing young people for adult life. Love, sex and relationships are some of the most important aspects of most people’s lives. Yet millions of young people grow up sexually and emotionally illiterate. The result? Dysfunctional, miserable relationships and unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs; leading to anxiety, depression and other manifestations of mental ill-health. Plus drug and alcohol abuse.

This is the shocking price we pay for half-baked SRE and the right of parents to pull their kids out of SRE classes.

Labour and other parties should pledge to either scrap the parental opt-out completely or require parents to come to the school and physically take their child out of each SRE lesson. The latter option would preserve the right of parents to withdraw their children but require them to make an effort. In all likelihood, the number of kids being taken out of SRE would plummet which, from a child welfare point of view, would be a damn good thing.

Another notable finding from the NUS survey is that more than a third of students gave their SRE experience a negative rating on equality and diversity.

To prevent prejudice and bullying, schools clearly need to do more to challenge ignorant, intolerant attitudes, so that pupils treat each other fairly and with respect – to create a safer, friendlier and more cohesive education environment – and society.

No one is born bigoted. Some young people become bigoted because of the bad influences of adults and peers. Early, sustained equality and diversity education can help prevent this.

That’s why I believe equality and diversity education against all prejudice – including racism, misogyny and homophobia – should be part of the core national curriculum and required teaching in every school. These dedicated lessons – by specialist trained teachers – should start from the first year of primary level through to the end of secondary education.

The aim would be to promote understanding and acceptance of Britain’s many different peoples and communities. Together with a strong affirmation of our common humanity, they should educate young people to accept that the right to be different is a human right, providing this difference doesn’t infringe the rights of others.

Does Labour get it? I hope so. Will the other parties get it? I hope so. This shouldn’t be a party political issue. We are talking about young people’s welfare. They deserve better