How Much Progress Has Been Made on Teaching LGBT+ Issues in Schools?

The history of the teaching of LGBT+ related issues within our schools has certainly been a tumultuous one – but where are we today?

Words: Ellie Fells
Lead image: Class 2E at the City of London School wearing rainbow laces

‘You don’t have to come out to come in’ is the very fitting mantra of City of London School’s LGBT+ Society, a statement that seems to perfectly capture the friendly and inclusive approach that the society fosters. It was founded at the all boys’ school in 2016 with Coco Stevenson, the deputy head pastoral, and Ian Emerson, the head of sixth form, at the helm.

‘A few boys in the Sixth Form had come out and we were talking to them and supporting them, and we thought it might be good to form a society,’ Mr Emerson explains. ‘We approached three of the boys and asked if they would be interested, and they said they’d hoped we would, but had been wary about coming forwards with the idea themselves – one even said that he’d been waiting seven years for it!’

Evidently, the society was warmly welcomed and today its weekly meetings are widely attended by both staff and students, with the agenda always being driven by the ideas of the pupils themselves. The school also holds its own Pride to coincide with London Pride, as well as running regular assemblies and trips that focus on LGBT-related issues.

‘Every year we have our famous rainbow cake for members of the LGBT+ society who are leaving the school too,’ Mrs Stevenson adds, ‘and they always give a speech and talk about what the society has meant to them. It’s really lovely.’

City of London is a shining example of a school that has gone above and beyond to make sure that the LGBT community are accepted, and to ensure that LGBT+ issues are discussed within the wider curriculum. Fortunately, they’re not alone in making big steps forward.

Paving the way

Older generations – even by as little as ten years or so – might remember the approach to the teaching of LGBT-related issues at school as being a whole world away to that of City of London School. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people have historically been more or less non-existent on the curriculum and Section 28, which stated that local authorities should not ‘intentionally promote’ homosexuality, had a stifling, damaging effect.

However, in recent years some landmark pieces of legislation have helped to change this, such as the Equality Act of 2010 and the very recent updates to the regulations for teaching Relationships and Sex Education in schools.

Coming into force from September 2020, these changes stipulate that all secondary schools are required to teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, and that primary schools will be required to teach about different families which can include LGBT ones.

‘Attitudes regarding the teaching of LGBT+ issues are shifting, and we have a number of different organisations and individuals to thank for this’

These pieces of legislation suggest that attitudes regarding the teaching of LGBT+ issues are shifting, and we have a number of different organisations and individuals to thank for this.

At the forefront is Schools OUT UK, a charity that has long worked to make LGBT people in all their diversity visible within the education sector. It was born as the Gay Teachers Association in 1974, and went on to do a huge amount of work to challenge Section 28 after it came into force in 1988.

‘It’s very difficult for people now to have a sense of just how homophobic the media and atmosphere was during that time Section 28 was set up. It was appalling,’ explains Professor Sue Sanders, chair of the charity.

‘During the 15 years that Section 28 was happening, Schools OUT did what they could to put out information to schools to challenge homophobic bullying…which was growing.’

Inspired by the success of Black History Month, the organisation then had the idea of starting another history month for the LGBT community. ‘We thought it might have an effect in beginning to make lesbian and gay people visible, because we were totally and utterly invisible in schools,’ Professor Sanders reflects.

They brought the idea to the Department for Education in 2004 and with that LGBT History Month was launched; it continues to take place annually in February, centring on a theme that changes every year, and it’s now bigger than ever with hundreds of schools and organisations taking part.

‘The idea of the month is to kick open the door so that we start being seen across the whole year,’ Professor Sanders adds. Part of the work of Schools OUT is The Classroom, a website that provides a huge number of free resources for teachers which are designed to help them ensure that their lessons are as inclusive of the LGBT experience as possible.

‘Stonewall has also played a key role in changing the conversation about LGBT+ related issues within our classrooms; they run a ‘School Champions’ programme for both primary and secondary schools’

‘The concept behind it is “usualising”. We want to usualise LGBT people across the curriculum, so that we’re not just discussed in PSHE,’ Professor Sanders explains.

Stonewall has also played a key role in changing the conversation about LGBT+ related issues within our classrooms; they run a ‘School Champions’ programme for both primary and secondary schools, which involves LGBT inclusive training sessions and offers guidance on how to proactively tackle anti-LGBT bullying.

City of London School has held a Stonewall Schools Champion Award since 2018 in recognition of their strides forward in this area, and they are joined by over 1000 others who are making similar progress.

Bryanston School in Dorset has a prestigious Gold award, for example: they hold regular assemblies, talks and displays centred on LGBT-related issues, and they offer training sessions on LGBT+ awareness and inclusion for staff and prefects.

‘Sixth Formers also benefit from LGBT+ role model visits as part of their current affairs programme,’ adds Ian McClary, the school’s LGBT+ lead – one visit was from none other than Sir Ian McKellen back in 2017.

‘In addition, there is an ongoing, rolling audit of academic departments to identify where LGBT+ people and issues are covered and where there might be additional opportunities for coverage,’ he says. The school recently hosted The LGBT+ Knowledge Exchange, which marked the first event of its kind in the region and was attended by a wide number of schools.

‘It was very well received,’ reflects Claire Miller, head of boarding, and she explains that they hope to run similar events in the future. ‘It’s important to ensure that LGBT+ people and issues are visible and embedded in the fabric of the school’ she explains.

Beyond the classroom walls

We’re also seeing education about LGBT+ related issues taking other forms outside of schools too – LGBT theatre, for example, is an area that is growing. Really Want to Hurt Me, a play written and directed by Ben SantaMaria, is in the midst of its UK tour and its plot draws on SantaMaria’s own, often painful, experiences of growing up gay in the 1980s.

‘I worked on developing the play over various versions since we started with a short piece in 2017 to make it as true to my memories as possible, so it’s an authentic picture of teenage life, while also shaping it in to a story that speaks to LGBTQ audiences and their allies regardless of their age,’ he reflects.

It is aimed at those aged 14 plus, and although it is set over 30 years ago, it is hoped that the piece will resonate with young members of the LGBT+ community within the audience. Alongside actor Ryan Price, Mr SantaMaria is also running free LGBTQ writing workshops in certain locations, which are for any young people who want to start exploring how to tell their own life stories.

The future

‘Stonewall’s School Report of 2017 revealed that nearly half of LGBT pupils still face bullying at school for their sexuality’

The question of how much progress has really been made for LGBT+ young people since the days of the 1980s that Ben SantaMaria’s play depicts is debatable. Stonewall’s School Report of 2017 revealed that nearly half of LGBT pupils still face bullying at school for their sexuality, whilst more than two in five trans young people have tried to take their own life. These statistics, sadly, speak for themselves.

Announcement of the changes to the teaching of Relationships and Sex Education also sparked much controversy; earlier this year they were met by hoards of objecting parents outside school gates who said these changes went against their religion or that their child was too young to be learning about these issues.

In response, a number of schools stopped teaching about LGBT related issues altogether. Snapshots of these protests that we saw plastered across the media would suggest that our education system still has a long way to go.

But then, the increasing work of schools such as City of London and Bryanston also suggests that we are heading in the right direction. Many have incorporated discussion of the LGBT community into their curriculums, and are actively working towards eliminating homophobic bullying.

The likes of Schools OUT UK and Stonewall have also done a huge amount to increase the visibility of LGBT+ people within the education sector, and since they were first formed there have certainly been some momentous steps forward. It does seem we are making progress – albeit slow, at times.

Find out more at schools-out.org.uk, lgbthistorymonth.org.uk and the-classroom.org.uk