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

What LGBTQ+ education should we provide?

In the first of two parts, Richard Palmer explores what LGBTQ+ education looks like, what’s ‘age-appropriate’ and poses questions to help review your provision.

In the world of PSHE, LGBTQ+ is one of the most controversial issues.

Some teachers worry they aren’t doing enough; others are concerned they might be confusing pupils. Parents and guardians can be wholly supportive, or strongly against. It’s not uncommon to witness such polarised views in a school community.

These debates have become increasingly divergent as the visibility of trans people and those with alternative sexual orientations has been fostered in society. Legislation such as the UK’s Equality Act is now 12 years old and it simply hasn’t moved with the times.

Trans rights have become an important social issue, but these often clash with the rights of others. The debate around women only spaces is a perfect example. Gay rights jar with the rights of some faith groups who express homosexuality is sinful in their religious teachings.

Where do individual rights and freedom of expression end, and hate crime begin? These are societal issues and questions that nobody seems to have an answer for. This leaves many schools worrying about what and how they should be including LGBTQ+ in the curriculum, if at all.

Schools are not helped by government PSHE guidance that is open to interpretation. This leaves them needing to devise their own policy and left to speculate if what they’re doing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

The term age-appropriate isn’t useful for schools. Some student cohorts may be immature, others may be ‘beyond their years’.

What do young people want?

We (Chameleon PDE) are in the privileged position of collecting the views of thousands of secondary school students each year. Our ‘How Are You?’ anonymous pupil survey asks pupils to rate the PSHE they receive. Through open comment boxes they list any topics they want to know more about. LGBTQ+ is one of the most highly requested themes.

This could be for several reasons. There will be students who are LGBTQ+ seeking validation and support. Some may be questioning their sexual orientation; some might be questioning their gender. However, this will be a minority of students, and yet substantially more of their peers also request LGBTQ+ focused lessons. Why?

I return to visibility. In Western culture there is more prominence of LGBTQ+ people in the media. It’s now commonplace to see representation in adverts, TV shows and movies. Shows like ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ and ‘Glow-Up’, popular with many teenagers, feature a diverse and inclusive LGBTQ+ cast. Global phenomena such as Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ include LGBTQ+ characters.

Do we give young people enough credit to take responsibility for their education, ask questions and seek answers? Might we be accused of occasionally seeing them as vessels to be filled with the knowledge we assume they do, or do not, need?

This is why schools who use our resources consult with their pupils. Unlike other curriculum subjects, PSHE can be tailored. There is no set curriculum or exams to be passed. Its ultimate aim is to prepare students for life beyond school, so teaching should reflect this.

What’s ‘age-appropriate?’

Critics of LGBTQ+ education in schools cite that making pupils aware of different sexual orientations or genders will be confusing, especially for students who are pre-puberty or going through adolescence. They’re not wrong, it has the potential to be, and even worrying for pupils if handled inappropriately. Extra care needs to be taken with pupils who have special educational needs.

The term age-appropriate isn’t useful for schools. Some student cohorts may be immature, others may be ‘beyond their years’. Having a static PSHE curriculum that is rolled out year-on-year may not be suitable in meeting every student’s needs.

This is why we don’t offer our partner schools a ‘programme’ to be followed, but instead a library of resources and the tools needed to build a bespoke curriculum for every cohort of pupils.

Safeguarding and quality assurance are also important considerations. Some opponents of PSHE, and more specifically relationships and sex education, say that teachers are vulnerable to teaching inappropriate content as they are not specialists. It is often argued that time-poor teachers cannot properly quality assure PSHE resources.

These claims are patronising. Teachers, in our experience, take PSHE seriously and approach it with a common-sense attitude. It is true that most are non-specialists, but they have a strong sense of what their students need and use suitable teaching pedagogy.

Nevertheless, it’s still vital that quality assurance of PSHE content is robust. Every pack in our PSHE library has a set of safeguarding notes that support the non-specialist teacher to provide an emotionally safe lesson.

We are not alone in this respect, and many other PSHE providers also do this. However, there are a small minority who don’t, so it’s always worth checking what resources your staff are using.

Unlike other curriculum subjects, PSHE can be tailored. There is no set curriculum or exams to be passed.

Should pupils be taught the new terminology?

Terminology about different genders and sexual orientations has increased exponentially. Teachers tend to be worried about this and ‘getting it wrong’.

Older pupils should be made aware of the most used terms. The rationale is not to indoctrinate or confuse them, but instead make students aware of the language. Regardless of one’s feelings about LGBTQ+ terminology, it’s here to stay.

Life after school will involve meeting LGBTQ+ people and irrespective of any personal values or beliefs, pupils should be taught to respect all forms of diversity. Is this indoctrination or just learning to be nice?

Being ignorant of these terms could also lead the unwary to inadvertently cause offence (even when none was meant). This is particularly relevant as there is much unresolved debate about what constitutes ‘hate speech’ with regard to human rights and equalities legislation.

It’s also important for any student who is LGBTQ+ or questioning to understand. Terminology explained sensitively can help them appreciate the feelings they are experiencing. For questioning students, it may help them work out if their feelings are about their gender or sexual orientation, or something that’s unconnected. By not teaching this, it leaves them potentially confused and anxious.

Key questions to leave you with from Part 1

  • When did you last have a school focus on your PSHE /Student Personal Development programme?
  • What LGBTQ+ content is currently included in your PSHE programme? Does this need to be revisited?
  • What are the safeguards in place so that students are not confused or worried when learning about LGBTQ+ or other ‘sensitive’ issues in PSHE?
  • Do you know what your pupils want from their PSHE lessons?
  • How confident are you that pupils understand that ‘banter’ might be offensive to others?
  • Are students who are LGBTQ+, or questioning this, being included and supported?

RSHE Digital Masterclass: Effective subject leadership

On Thursday 3 November, Richard will be leading this digital masterclass designed to boost your confidence, so you feel empowered to lead this vital curriculum subject and develop a clear roadmap for your setting.

Book your place now.


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