The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Richard Palmer

LGBTQ+ education: what’s too little and what’s too much?

‘Make PSHE education as inclusive and balanced as possible.’ In the second of two parts, Richard Palmer explains how to take a non-siloed approach to PSHE.

We start part two of this blog on LGBTQ+ education by asking the question – too little or too much?

As a child who was educated in the 1970s and 80’s, unless you were a straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical, male pupil, you didn’t exist in my secondary school. Inclusion wasn’t on the agenda. As a result, bullying and mental health problems for students who were ‘different’ was rife.

Thankfully, times have moved on and schools are better at creating inclusivity. So, are there risks of stigmatisation and taking a retrograde step if we don’t embrace LGBTQ+ education?

I have seen schools ‘do’ inclusion but leave out LGBTQ+ because it was too difficult or controversial for the setting. Some were worried about parental backlash. This left LGBTQ+ students feeling disenfranchised and unsupported.

In contrast, I have seen schools ‘push the envelope’ of inclusion so far that it became perplexing for pupils, and impossible for staff to teach. Some schools can put too much emphasis on LGBTQ+ students meaning the rest feel disproportionately represented. This can inadvertently make LGBTQ+ students a target for harassment.

Don’t prioritise one group over another

Some of the best practice I have seen, and an approach that we at Chameleon PDE have taken, is to make PSHE education as inclusive and balanced as possible. If we’re teaching a lesson about bullying, we include all forms of bullying; racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ phobic slurs, ableism etc.

If we’re teaching about romantic relationships, we use inclusive resources so we’re not just discussing white, married, heterosexual couples. There is a need for some specific lessons with an LGBTQ+ focus at secondary school, but these shouldn’t be the only lessons that pupils receive.

In schools who’ve adopted this non-siloed approach, all students tend to be satisfied with their PSHE curriculum, and LGBTQ+ education is just part of it. No one social group is prioritised over another.

Some schools can put too much emphasis on LGBTQ+ students meaning the rest feel disproportionately represented. This can inadvertently make LGBTQ+ students a target for harassment.

What about primary?

Anxieties about LGBTQ+ education can become fraught when the attention is on primary schools. As with their secondary colleagues, most primary schools take a sensible approach and include LGBTQ+ when appropriate.

Unfortunately, there are myths and misperceptions that have been propagated in the press and on social media. We hear of drag queens instructing children about how to be trans. Lessons that teach children about gay sex. I cannot vouch for all providers of LGBTQ+ education, but in my experience these stories often turn out to be untrue.

The rise of social media means a story can be Tweeted in 280 characters, so how can it possibly reflect the full picture? Similarly, teaching resources posted on social media to make a point by groups who have concerns about LGBTQ+ education may have been carefully selected. They may not be a fair representation of the full resource. Can you judge what a jigsaw puzzle will look like from one piece?

This type of narrative isn’t helpful for schools, who in recent years have seen protests from anxious parent groups. I am not belittling these parents’ concerns but dig a little deeper and their worries can often be founded on myths and half-truths about a school’s approach. When a school consults parents transparently, these misperceptions can be dispelled and leave them feeling reassured.

You know your students best. If you can involve them in PSHE by asking what they want to learn you will be even more informed.

So, what’s appropriate in primary? The ‘nuclear family’ is common but by no means the ‘norm’, so when children are learning about families, we should be inclusive. If a child has two gay dads, they should feel validated, just as a child with a mum and a dad. We don’t need to go into any detail. Being gay can be explained to children in simple terms. It’s when a man and man, or a woman and a woman love each other in a romantic way. This isn’t discussing anything sexual.

Children should also be taught that using any unkind word is hurtful. Primary schools who take an inclusive line bring in all sorts of words at this point. This includes any LGBTQ+ slurs they have heard the children using. This isn’t singling out some words over others; it’s well-considered inclusive education.

What about trans?

A current sticking-point is around trans-inclusion. There is scope for this to go wrong in the primary classroom, but should it be avoided altogether? In secondary schools there is a place for some trans-inclusion education as discussed in part one of this blog.

We feel that universal provision about trans in the primary classroom may not be always developmentally appropriate for all children in all settings. Primary schools often teach children about gender stereotyping and why this is wrong; add trans into the mix and there is potential for some children to become confused unless this is taught with sensitivity and clarity.

There may also be some situations where it is necessary to do something specific. If there is a trans child in class, clarification is important so children have empathy for their peer. Primary schools have experienced a pupil returning from the summer break with a different gender, so of course this needs to be discussed with the children, if the child and their family agree for this to be shared.

Some PSHE providers include lessons about trans as part of their primary programme. We have chosen not to do this but have materials available should schools require them. This is not being transphobic. We feel that when it comes to trans-inclusion in the primary school, teachers are best placed to know what is appropriate for their children and setting.

When we celebrate uniqueness with children at primary school do we need to have specific lessons about every different race, culture, disability, type of LGBTQ+ person? This isn’t necessary as our over-riding aim is to be inclusive of everyone all the time.

In conclusion…

When it comes to LGBTQ+ education it’s about doing what is right for your pupils. You know your students best. If you can involve them in PSHE by asking what they want to learn you will be even more informed. This in turn can help you formulate a balanced approach and have confidence that it’s based on a strong rationale.

Ensure you quality assure any LGBTQ+ education, whether this is a classroom resource or any outside speakers.

  • Do resources support staff who may be non-specialists? 
  • Does your LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum safeguard pupils, while being informative and developmentally appropriate?
  • How effective has your parental consultation been? Is there more you could do to offer reassurance?

PSHE requirements and the personal development needs of students are constantly evolving and schools need to try and evolve alongside. It is possible to get this right for your pupils and have parents on board. Reflecting on your approach with staff and students (if appropriate) might be a helpful next step for you to take.


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