Did you your parents ever have the ‘Birds and the Bees’ chat with you? Was it informative and useful? How much detail was given (or omitted)? Did it equip you for the complex world of adult relationships and sex? If you’re anything like me, it will have been a brief, detail-light conversation that filled both parties with absolute horror.

The Department for Education has released its first statutory guidance on Relationships and Sex Education (SRE) since the year 2000, which comes into force in September 2020. The updated guidance has several areas of focus, including online relationships, respectful relationships and being safe.

Key to the new guidance though is specific guidance on LGBT (which is informed by the Equality Act 2010) and a requirement that primary schools teach children

“That others’ families, either in school or in the wider world, sometimes look different from their family, but that they should respect those differences and know that other children’s families are also characterised by love and care.”.

Unless you have lived under a stone for the last four months, you will be aware of the protests outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, where parents stood outside the school for several months in opposition against the school’s ‘No Outsiders’ project, and the resultant successful action of the Local Authority to seek an injunction against the protestors at the High court. ‘No Outsiders’ is considered by many to be an example of great SRE, and, after the project was piloted in 2014, it was soon adopted by schools across the country, with its creator Assistant Headteacher Andrew Moffatt being made an MBE for services to equality and diversity in education.

With the new SRE guidance coming into effect in just over a year, we may well expect more and more of these demonstrations and parental remonstrations as parents, who clearly never received any education about inclusiveness or different families when they were youngsters, try desperately to argue that inclusion somehow equals permissiveness and that respect equates to the ‘promotion’ of different lifestyles.

The idea that education equals promotion has been an issue since 1988, where Section 28 or Clause 28 [note 1] of the Local Government Act 1988 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.[2] 

Government legislation eventually caught up with society and the clause was repealed in 2003 but LGBT and inclusive SRE education is the next frontier and this time its parents, not politicians that are standing in its way.

My partner recently became involved in a heated debate via a friends’ Facebook post, relating to the June 26th article in The Times ‘No pupil will leave school without lessons on same-sex relationships, says education secretary Damian Hinds’. One person (let’s call her Mandy) had a particular problem with this, the thrust of her argument essentially being:

  1. This sort of thing should be left to parents
  2. Children should be learning ‘basic life skills’ not ‘gay pride’.
  3. We should be focussing on safeguarding children’s mental health before spending time on teaching them about LGBT+ relationships.

Which brings me back to my original questions: can parents be counted on to have these conversations adequately? With homophobic and transphobic hate crimes doubling since 2014, can people of the LGBT+ community have any faith that leaving the teaching of acceptance and tolerance to families will bear any fruit?

What Mandy missed in her considered analysis of education policy, is that good schooling thrives to teach holistically, shaping young people and opening little minds to the joys and complexities of the world, equipping them not just to read, write and think mathematically but to be able to ‘be’ healthily in an increasingly complex world. Mandy urges schools to prioritise children’s mental health yet spectacularly misses a blindingly obvious point: that key to good mental health is a robust sense of self. If young people grow up believing that being anything other than the ordinary is somehow wrong or less than, how can they ever be mentally healthy? In order to teach acceptance and respect, don’t we have to talk about the kinds of difference that patently exist in the actual real world?

As a school leader, I am constantly aware of how much there is to do in such a crammed school week (and year) and yet I will fight tooth and nail to ensure that by the time the children in my school come to leave, they at least understand that families come in different forms: some have one dad, some two mums, some with parents of two different faiths and that each and every one of those families (and every other constellation) is valid.  That’s not because I want to indoctrinate anyone, or that I have a particular agenda I am trying to push; rather, I want to live in a society and a country that encourages its young people to recognise others, to respect difference and to know that love is love, in whatever form it presents. Can any parent want anything other for their child? And if so, should our civilised society really just ‘leave them to it’?

Author: Jody Tranter is an Assistant Head Teacher of an Islington Primary school. He is in a same-sex relationship and has two adopted children.