My heart sank on Saturday evening as it emerged that three academies in the UK have stipulated that their 'governors will not support the promotion of homosexuality' in their Sex and Relationships Education Policy. These are the words that were used in Section 28 – one of those evil scraps of rotting flesh for the carrion left by the Thatcher era, which was law in England and Wales from 1988 until 2003 (2000 in Scotland).
According to a report in GayStar News, Castle View Enterprise Academy in Sunderland, Colston Girl's School in Bristol and Swindon Academy contained anti-gay language from Section 28, which banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in their Sex and Relationships Policy. Since then it has been found that 44 schools still have the statement 'governors will not support the promotion of homosexuality' in their SRE policies.
The wording is of major concern. While it would be inappropriate to try to change a young person's sexuality - which is arguably impossible anyway - the term "promotion of homosexuality" is a throwback to those dark days when the law made it explicitly clear that non-heterosexuals were inferior and could not form proper families. Teachers genuinely believed they couldn’t say ‘gay’ in the classroom.
The horrid truth is that many of our schools are still not safe spaces for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) pupils, staff and parents - would that they were. The last thing we need is to return to the vocabulary of the Thatcher era that perpetuated the myth that we were literally unspeakable in the classroom.
A weekend ago there was a protest at Whitehall against the Anti-homosexuality Propaganda Bill and its appalling consequences in Russia. The wording and the spirit of the Russian Bill were inspired by Thatcher's Section 28, although it goes much further in its scope and in terms of who it will criminalise. My first thoughts when I read this article were: “Please don't tell me a week later that I have to start fighting against the return by stealth of such discriminatory legislation in my own country”.
So I went online and made full use of the social media – banging out messages on the Schools OUT and LGBT History Month websites as well as Facebook and Twitter – just to make sure that the whole LGBT community (or as much of it as I can access) were aware and afraid as I was. It worked! An online petition was immediately knocked together and thousands signed in a very short time.
Then came the “Calm down, dear” bit. Apparently there was nothing to worry about. These academies – like many other academies and LEA schools – had simply adopted wholesale the Sex and Relationships (SRE) Policy that existed before 2003, which was when Section 28 was enshrined in law. The three offending academies had dropped the wording. Cock-up rather than conspiracy. End of. Nothing to worry about.
Well, excuse me. If schools are using policies that were put together (cut and pasted?) before 2003 relating to outdated laws that institutionalise discrimination, I think there is a lot to worry about. Have these policies been reviewed? Have they been read or adopted? Have they been left lying and gathering dust in the Head’s office? Have they been left on the back-burner ready to be updated when there’s a staff meeting that doesn’t have to deal with the latest changes handed down by the DfE?
School policy on SRE, like any other school policy, should subject to regular review. As regards the LGBT community and other ‘protected characteristics’ they should be subject to equality impact assessments. That’s bureaucrat speak for ‘they should be tested for their effect on people’.
I hope that ‘The Equality Act’ – which we fought for over many years – can be brought into effect here. The Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation. The Public Sector Equality Duty says schools must foster good relations between the 'protected characteristics' (i.e. LGB people and other protected groups). These academies will be inspected by OFSTED and are subject to the same rules and guidance as LEA schools. I take comfort from the fact that the policy statements say: 'objective discussion of homosexuality may take place in the classroom'.
If the statement ‘governors will not support the promotion of homosexuality’ is to stand, however, the ambiguity is worrying. If a member of staff tells a pupil who comes out as lesbian, gay or bisexual that there is a youth support group in the area and gives the details, would that be 'promoting homosexuality'?
All schools need to be told by the DfE that they must drop the term 'promote/promotion of homosexuality' from their SRE policy statements. Then whole school training for teachers in promoting equality and diversity need to be made statutory. That is how we will begin to make our schools safe spaces and save children’s lives.
'Tony Fenwick is co-chair of Schools OUT/LGBT History Month