Thirty years ago Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 became law. This short clause - less than 200 words - impacted upon the education of millions of British people. It prevented schools from “promoting” homosexuality or teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
No school or individual was ever prosecuted under the law. The Department for Education emphasised that Section 28 did “not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality”. Nevertheless, it served its purpose. The resulting fear and confusion silenced a generation of teachers on the subject of homosexuality in the classroom.
Section 28 was more than government-sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals. The law endorsed destructive misconceptions which still hinder efforts to eliminate homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying in schools.
“Promoting homosexuality” suggested homosexuality was a choice - a dangerous choice that kids could be talked into. Homosexuality is not a choice, and no amount of “promoting heterosexuality” has turned any LGBT+ person I know straight! Rather, the failure to educate young people about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues has led to unacceptable consequences for their achievement and wellbeing. LGBT young people are four times more likely to commit suicide, and over 50% say homophobia negatively affects their future education plans.
Section 28 also implied something troubling about homosexuality in the classroom - that it wasn’t acceptable to be gay and work with children. It supported the pernicious conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia. Even now, in some people’s minds being a gay teacher is tainted by this association. Recently, I gave a lecture at the Institute of Education to PGCE students about tackling HBT bullying. After I finished, many trainees shared their concerns about coming out at school: the potential impact on their career, damage to their relationships with students and staff and parental backlash to a gay person teaching their children. It’s a travesty that in 2018 new teachers are frightened about letting people know they’re gay. After all, what teacher starts their career worried if it’s ok for them to be straight at school?
Sadly, these anxieties mirror the situation nationally. A survey for the NASUWT found that over 50% of LGBT+ teachers feel their school is not a safe place to be out. We’re not just talking about improving the wellbeing of staff and pupils by supporting LGBT+ teachers. It’s good business: you can’t expect to attract and keep diverse talent if staff don’t feel able to be themselves. With the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, this is more important than ever.
Thirty years on from the Local Government Act, it’s time to cast off the cloying legacy of Section 28. It’s time to ensure young people grow up in schools where they know being LGBT+ is not something to be ashamed of and where teachers know they can bring their whole selves to their work.
So we’d like to invite schools to join over 300,000 pupils and teachers - LGBT+ and straight - who are preparing to hold an event in School Diversity Week (2-6 July 2018). Launched in 2016 with the Secretary of State for Education, School Diversity Week is the national celebration of LGBT+ equality in education.
With the support of our Teacher Advisory Group, Just Like Us produces a free toolkit to help you plan an activity in the week. This kit includes lesson plans, starters, workshops and resources that make it easy to incorporate LGBT+ themes into your lessons. It also enables your students to set up a Social Action Team which then plans the main event, which could be anything, from a cake sale or drama performance to non-uniform day or workshop. It’s an easy way to focus school efforts on tackling HBT bullying, involve all teachers and subjects in championing LGBT+ issues, and help students build skills for university and work.
Teachers and pupils repeatedly tell us about the impact the week has had on their community. As a Deputy Head from London said, School Diversity Week “has led to a much more supportive and cohesive student body where all our students feel safe and happy”. Ofsted has noted how the week “demonstrates leaders’ commitment to raising pupils’ awareness and enhancing their personal development and welfare, including their tolerance and respect for others”.
Thirty years ago this summer, the government’s ban on homosexuality in schools was about to fail a whole generation of young people. This year, hundreds of thousands of pupils and teachers will stand together to end that silence. By supporting School Diversity Week, we can ensure that our schools are communities where every young person - LGBT+ and straight - can be themselves and fulfil their potential.