Sunday 17 May 2020 marks 30 years since homosexuality was officially removed from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organisation. In that time huge changes have been ushered in, not least within education. The planned roll-out of new compulsory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons mark another important step forward and it’s vital this opportunity is seized.
I was one of the first generations to experience sex education lessons at school that were free from the toxic grip of Section 28 which prevented teachers from ‘promoting homosexuality’ – whatever that actually meant still leaves many of us confused to this day.
While there was less ambiguity about what could or couldn’t be spoken about in the classroom, visibility of LGBT people in lessons was still an after-thought. Girls were instructed to not get pregnant, while boys were told to always wear a condom.
It’s hard to overstate how damaging this lack of visibility can be for so many LGBT young people – it would take me until aged 21 to finally come out to not just friends and family but to myself. Inclusive relationships and sex education lessons are not the only thing young people need to feel they can be open about their sexuality, but they will reassure any pupil who is struggling with their identity that they are not alone and support is available.
That’s why the LGBT-inclusive aspect to RSE lessons matters so much. These lessons have the power to change lives and end the silence that has so deeply impacted generations of LGBT young people.
On Sunday the world will mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and it’s fitting this 30th anniversary coincides with the year LGBT-inclusive RSE lessons will finally be compulsory in England.
However, that September 2020 roll-out still feels like a long time away. Right now lockdown is having a significant impact on young LGBT people. Youth centres - which provide so many young LGBT people with a lifeline support – are still firmly closed. This week it was also revealed under 25s are the most likely to experience poor mental health during lockdown because of the lack of support available.
The availability of well-resourced and up-to-date RSE lessons has therefore never been more pressing. While playgrounds remain silent and classrooms are empty, the Government must take steps to ensure RSE lessons are not squeezed when schools eventually return. During a question in the House of Lords on 12 May, the Education Minister revealed the Department for Education was closely monitoring the planned roll-out timescales of RSE – meaning an inconsistent roll-out of lessons is now a real possibility.
The Government has also remained silent on detailing what training and support will be provided for schools to teach new Relationships Education and RSE lessons. Teachers want to deliver these lessons but Government must give them the tools to do so fast, otherwise compulsory remains an ambition rather than a reality. But there are reasons to be cheerful and hopeful. The words of Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman during a recent Education Select Committee appearance, were incredibly important. When asked about adhering to the wishes of parents on the LGBT-inclusive aspects of the new lessons, she made it clear that while this would always be preferable, the authority of head teachers must be respected and exercised.
Those scenes of protests outside school gates in Birmingham and elsewhere last year show us what happens when there is a lack of clarity about Government being fully behind schools delivering LGBT inclusive lessons. The same cannot happen again.
We’ve come a long way in the fight for LGBT visibility in schools, with many push backs overcome. There will be challenges ahead, but the argument has for the most part, been finally won. Now the Government must follow through, giving schools the support they need and young people the vital skills and knowledge to grow up happy, loved and feeling accepted.