Controversial RSHE Draft: Threatening LGBTQIA+ Education Amidst Election Turmoil 

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A human's eye with a rainbow light refraction across the face

By Joséphine Hengstwerth, Postgraduate Research Student & Member of the Rainbow Network and Dr Sophie King-Hill, Associate Professor in the Health Services Management Centre

The new draft Relationships, Sex and Health Education was released on the 16th May this year. There are many issues with this guidance that directly conflict with research and evidence in the area that intend to keep children and young people safe in the world that they live in today. One aspect of how damaging this new guidance would be is in relation LGBTQIA+ education, especially now an election has been called for the 4th July 2024.  

The election call raises a few key topics of discussion. Firstly, this is an opportunity to reconsider the draft guidance as a new government may well be in post by the time the consultation has concluded. Whilst an opportunity has presented itself for a more robust and evidence-based approach to a RSHE review, it is important to reflect upon the content of the draft that was released and have a realistic view on the damage that it may already have done. This is an incredibly important aspect of education on LGBTQIA+ as a whole and it is vital that we do not shift our focus from what has been said. 

In terms of education on gender for all children and young people, the new draft guidance states that: 

‘Schools should not teach about the broader concept of gender identity. Gender identity is a highly contested and complex subject. It is a sense a person may have of their own gender, whether male, female or a number of other categories. This may or may not be the same as their biological sex. Many people do not consider that they or others have a separate gender identity.’ 

This is followed by draft guidance stating that if children and young people ask about gender identity, they should be taught ‘facts’ about biological sex and should not teach that gender is a spectrum. And whilst the draft guidance outlines that pupils should be taught the law about gender reassignment, this is coupled with the caveat that ‘legal sex will always be the same as their biological sex and, at school, boys cannot be legally classified as girls or vice versa.’ Imposing age limits in when these discussions can take place banning any teaching on gender identity. 

Damage to all children and young people 

If implemented, these aspects of the guidance will be damaging for all children and young people who want to learn about the world around them as helping them understand inclusion, diversity and acceptance is a key facet of education. Contextually, there has been a recent increase in children and young people highlighting that they are questioning their gender identity. This number was at 8.7 per 100’000 in 2021. This throw up two issues, there are children and young people that need to know from the education system that their identity is valid and other, non-gender questioning children and young people need the education to understand the complexities of gender. It also highlights that gender questioning children and young people are a minority within our society. This is also coupled with high adverse mental health issues, suicide and violent attacks that these young people suffer as a result,indicating the importance of society and education demonstrating acceptance, compassion and inclusion to a vulnerable population of children that often suffer prejudice and discrimination. 

Children and young people need robust and realistic education in the area of gender identity. If they do not get this information from a valid and safe source, they are likely to turn to less regulated or reliable sources such as the internet. It is thought that 96% of 9-11 now have a smart phone, which means that they have access to a while range of credible information and damaging mis-information in relation to gender. Banning education about the realities of the world around them can create confusion and foster shame in all children and young people, conflicting with the sense of self that they have and the identity within gender that everyone has. In this respect, the education system has to foster an environment where children can thrive and that to discriminate is dangerous. The evidence on educating children and young people about all aspects of gender tells us that the more information they have, the better it is for all of them. This conflicts with the aspects of the new draft guidance that refer to gender. 

The reality of heteronormative education 

One of the authors of this article, a member of The Rainbow Network and post graduate researcher, recalls her own experiences in light of the specific age brackets suggested in the new guidance, which states that:  

The Department recommends that primaries teach sex education in years 5 or 6 (this should be taught no earlier than year 5) in line with what pupils learn about conception and birth as part of the national curriculum for science.’ and ‘Schools may also cover human reproduction in the science curriculum, but  where they do so, this should be in line with the factual description of conception in the science curriculum 

As someone who has had to navigate the complexities of understanding my own sexuality while growing up with heteronormative teaching and little to no guidance, the new draft hits close to home. The proposed guidance suggests teaching about reproduction in a scientific manner, which remains predominantly heteronormative, promoting heterosexuality as the ‘normal’ sexual orientation. This raises critical concerns about the implications for LGBTQIA+ youth who are already marginalised in many educational settings.   

The guidance, both in relation to sexuality and gender echoes Thatcher’s Section 28 from 1988-2003, when schools were not allowed to “promote the teaching… of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The impact of this is undeniable and continues to live on. The School Report 2017 highlighted that nearly half of LGBTQIA+ youth has been subject to bullying in school and even received death threats for being lesbian, gay, bi or trans. Only one in five say they have learnt about safe sex for same same-sex relationships, leaving them without the necessary information to make informed sexual decisions. As a result, pupils turn to unreliable sources such as pornography for guidance, which can lead to unrealistic and unhealthy perceptions of sex. Furthermore, there is a large health discrepancy as a result, with LGBTQIA+ youth being at higher risk of STIs and poor mental health.  

Personally, I have lost track of how many times I’ve been asked how “it” works for lesbians and whether “scissoring” is a real thing. Such microaggressions lead to further stigmatisation, marginalisation and discrimination. Up to this day, I have never been informed how to have safe sex as a lesbian aside from “wash your hands” – is that all there is to it?  

There is a large amount of evidence showing the importance of comprehensive sex education and there is proof that young people want LGBTQIA+ -inclusive sex and relationship education. A recent report produced for the government on what young people want – that was requested to feed into the draft guidance and produced by King-Hill, highlighted that children and young people want more, not less education on all matters surrounding LGBTQIA+ topics, including gender. And they felt that it should be sooner, rather than later, and integrated into the curriculum, not bolt on or tokenistic 

While the statutory relationships and sex education in 2020 was a significant step away from Section 28 and towards a more comprehensive sex education, the new draft guidance is a dangerous step backwards for the LGBTQIA+ community and will have damaging implications for all children and young people. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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