What to teach and when? Confusion over LGBT teaching obligations

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is still confusion about what schools are required to teach – and when – in relation to some LGBT+ matters, inspectors have reported.

A small-scale Ofsted research study (Jones, 2021) has found “a lot of confusion around schools’ teaching obligations” because of a lack of a detailed central curriculum.

School leaders would like more detailed information from the Department for Education (DfE) on what should be taught at each age, including specific guidance for teaching about sexual orientation and gender reassignment.

The research study is based on interviews and questionnaires involving staff and pupils at 24 schools, including eight primaries and 14 secondaries.

It identifies a range of best practice approaches to teaching about sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment and comes after Ofsted’s recent review into peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse identified that a lack of high-quality relationships and sex education was a key contributing factor (Ofsted, 2021).

New statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) came into force last September, although due to the pandemic schools have been allowed until this term to begin teaching (DfE, 2019).

The Ofsted research said the confusion was particularly acute for primary schools, which are allowed to decide which elements of sex education are age-appropriate to teach in consultation with parents. The report acknowledges that this freedom has brought some schools into conflict with some parents.

However, under the Equality Act 2010, sexual orientations and gender reassignment are protected characteristics meaning schools must comply with relevant provisions.

On LGBT, the RSHE statutory guidance (DfE, 2019) simply states: “Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age-appropriate in approach and content.

“At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson. Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.”

One middle leader told inspectors: “(The) guidance is too woolly – take it out or give us better guidance. (We need) greater clarity over what should be taught by when.”

In a commentary discussing the research findings, Chris Jones, Ofsted’s director corporate strategy, writes: “Leaders were mostly asking for information on what should or should not be taught at each age. Headteachers were left to decide when something should be taught, but some perceived this as a lack of support from DfE.

“There was confusion among schools about what the various pieces of guidance required teachers to teach in relation to LGBT matters in particular. Guidance identifies a minimum requirement, but does not contemplate any ceiling on what can be taught at what age, so there can be pressure to go further, potentially causing conflict with some parents. There is also a scarcity of research that could inform teaching or pastoral support.”

Elsewhere, the schools in the study also call for support with teaching resources: “Given the lack of expertise and training, staff needed help with the selection or adaption of resources for different year groups and would like ‘a pool of quality resources for schools.”

Five tenets of effective practice

Usefully, the research identifies principles that are core to effective teaching across the 24 schools:

School culture: The research reports on how a message of acceptance came out strongly in school culture, teaching, extra-curricular activities, and pastoral support. Promoting a culture of respect was seen as a “moral duty”.

One secondary school leader told inspectors: “School culture is everything. With the right culture, you will be able to navigate sensitive subject areas. Culture is supported by policies, procedures and systems. Our staff sign up to a value statement, which commits them to the values but also gets them to agree to behaviours that we expect and those we wouldn’t tolerate.”

Teaching across the curriculum: Teaching of LGBT matters was not just limited to RSHE but found across all subjects and was “planned and integrated across the curriculum”. The report continues: “Different teaching methods were used, such as direct instruction, discussion and debate, research, books, stories and documentaries, workshops, making posters and displays, visiting speakers and role models.

“Staff and pupils highlighted the importance of learning through discussion and openly asking and responding to questions. Being aware that some pupils were unlikely to do this at home, staff enabled pupils to ask questions. Staff were open to honest or difficult conversations with their pupils.”

Teaching about sex and gender stereotypes: “Many schools in our sample worked hard on minimising sex and gender stereotypes through their teaching. Staff saw breaking entrenched and negative social stereotypes as a way of broadening horizons.”

Teaching about different sexual orientations and gender reassignment: The schools taught about LGBT equality in group or whole-school exercises, including lessons, assemblies and guest speakers. Pupils were taught about the importance of respecting all, and not judging people because of sexual orientation or gender reassignment.

The report adds: “In many primary schools in our sample, pupils were introduced to LGBT role models, such as historical or present influential LGBT people. They were taught, in an age-appropriate way, about different types of family, appropriate language to use to refer to LGBT people, bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.”

Successfully engaging with parents: Schools are required to consult parents about their RSHE teaching and learning policy, but the research acknowledges that this can lead to conflict in some isolated cases. It adds: “Staff navigated these issues in different ways, but what linked them all was communication – proactive and reactive. To pre-empt misunderstandings, staff in some schools proactively communicated with parents. This is especially important in view of social media, where misinformation can spread quickly.”

  • DfE: Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education (statutory guidance), June 2019: https://bit.ly/3x6QdwM
  • Jones: Research commentary: Teaching about sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment, Ofsted, July 2021: https://bit.ly/2Uvu78h
  • Ofsted: Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3gDRW6t

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