Can schools be truly inclusive without sex education?

TIE campaign.jpgEVERYONE loves the TIE campaign. Since they burst onto the grassroots activism scene less than two years ago, Jordan Daly and Liam Stevenson have become well-kent faces in the Scottish media and earned cross-party praise for their efforts to combat homophobia in schools.

Cynics might note that LGBT people had long been campaigning on this issue before the pairing of a gay man with a heterosexual male ally brought it to the top of the policy agenda – but hey, it worked, so hats off to them.

It appears the Scottish Government agrees that it’s Time for Inclusive Education, as it this week announced plans for a working group to look into what changes are required. “There may be more that can be done to improve the education experience for LGBTI young people” was the carefully worded statement from the SNP’s Shirley-Anne Somerville. With 87 per cent of teachers reporting hearing homophobic abuse in their classrooms, there is surely no doubt that more can – and must – be done.

So what might the changes look like? TIE wants schools to take a proactive approach to tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, and to record all such incidents. It wants to see improved teacher training so that staff feel equipped to respond. But perhaps most importantly, it wants LGBT-inclusive sex and relationships education to be mandatory.

The last one is a biggie. At present, Scottish schools are not compelled to provide any sort of sex education, let alone a programme that acknowledges a range of sexualities. While there have been plenty of warm words about tackling the kind of sustained harassment that can leave young people contemplating suicide, there’s been a conspicuous silence about the obvious place to start.

Just as you can’t fatten a pig by measuring it, you can’t reduce homophobia by recording instances of it. And to mix farmyard metaphors, bolting the stable door is a far better strategy than trying to catch and tame the runaway horse. Children are not born homophobic; they learn prejudices from the adult society in which they are raised. Sex and relationships education is a prime opportunity to introduce them to the concept of LGBT identities and combat any intolerant messages they might be receiving from elsewhere. It provides a chance for them to ask questions about something they may simply not understand.

With the announcement last month that sex education is to be made compulsory in England, Scotland has some catching up to do. OK, so compulsory might not quite mean compulsory (parents will still have the right to withdraw their children from such classes, and denominational schools will be allowed to teach “in accordance with their faith”), but it’s a significant step forward that recognises the prevalence of sexting and cyberbullying. Education Secretary Justine Greening may not have explicitly referenced LGBT issues, but she probably just didn’t want to be responsible for any Tory dinosaurs choking to death on their corn flakes.

A public consultation is planned for later this year, and politicians north of the Border would do well to watch and learn. It might seem odd that they aren’t taking a lead on this issue, especially given how many gay, lesbian and bisexual politicians we have in senior roles, but a glance at the composition of the new working group provides a clue as to why. Among the bodies to be represented are Education Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Equality and Human Rights Commission … and the Scottish Catholic Education Service. This one faith-based organisation may be outnumbered three-to-one by LGBT rights groups, but that’s not to say it will have a third of the influence. The SNP haven’t battled to win over Catholic voters just to squander those efforts by getting into a tussle with their church about sex.

Some might be surprised to learn this is still such a big issue. After all, isn’t Pope Francis a lovely enlightened fellow who’s totally cool with gay folks? In a word: no, he’s not. He might have called for homosexual and transsexual people to be embraced by the church – a great PR move that earned him positive headlines late last year – but in the same breath he added: “It is one thing to have homosexual tendencies or a sex change, but it is another thing to teach it in schools.” It’s simply not possible to have it both ways: to say the church loves and accepts everyone but that teachers must not so much as whisper “It’s OK to be gay”.

It’s also easy to assume modern young people are so switched-on and “woke” that they don’t need old fogeys lecturing them about the bad old days of Stonewall riots and Section 28. But talk to any teacher and you’ll realise this is an over-optimistic view. Watch the BBC’s Child of our Time and hear how Eve, born in 2000, didn’t learn the term “lesbian” until she was 14. Listen to the boys from my local high school calling their peers “poofs” and “fags” during their lunch break. Sure, these kids might be more aware of gay actors, pop stars and party leaders than generations before them, but their primary role models are much closer to home.

If it’s time for inclusive education, it’s time to stop dodging a crucial debate about sex education. Waving a rainbow flag at Holyrood is simply not enough.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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