Sex education is a compulsory aspect of the UK school syllabus. It has been the subject of much debate in recent and past years, arguments breaking out over its necessity, compulsory nature and most importantly, its content. In 1988 the Local Government Act decreed that schools were not permitted to ‘promote homosexuality’ or its ‘acceptability as a pretend family relationship’ (Local Government Act 1988). While more recent legislation has declared that ‘young people, whatever their sexuality’ need to be supported (Department for Education and Employment 2001, pp. 12), there is still clear evidence of heterosexism in the sex education policy within schools. Heterosexism is ‘the assumption that hetero-sexuality is the social and cultural norm’ and that people belonging to this category are in some way superior to those the category excludes (Rainbow Resource Centre 2012, pp. 1). This can be seen in sex education policy which first developed to teach moral attitudes, express biological factors and prevent teen pregnancies. While the policy has changed over time to become more relationship centred and slightly less hetero-centric, there is still a perceived lack of support for LGBT+ content and thus a marked absence of it within the curriculum. This biased system has numerous stakeholders such as parents, teachers, schools, government and the pupils themselves.
Arguably the most important stakeholders are the pupils participating in the lessons during primary and secondary education. Many pupils in the education system see sex education as a joke lesson, one in which they do not have to pay much attention as it isn’t as important as other subjects (National Union of Students 2014, pp. 18). They argue that they can learn everything they need to know from their parents, friends and online pornography. However, within the lessons, many lesbian and gay pupils notice the heterosexism which is present and feel that sex education actively ‘excludes them’ (Forrest et al. 1997, pp. 10). Of over 2,000 pupils questioned in 2014, only 16% said that LGBT+ content was covered in their sex education lessons (National Union of Students 2014, pp. 16). While this can be clearly seen to affect the health and wellbeing of homosexual pupils it also has an adverse effect on heterosexual pupils as well, as a well-rounded sex education would prepare them ‘for the diversity of adult lives’ (Forrest et al. 1997, pp. 10). By removing this opertunity the education system is perpetuating the same ignorance and fear which led them to exclude such aspects in the first place. More practically, the exclusion of certain topics has led to the majority of pupils knowing about HIV but not being aware of the important facts (United Nations Children’s Fund 2002). Within this, if HIV and AIDS are discussed in the classroom, they are often accompanied by talk of homosexuality, leading to negative associations with this alternative sexuality as well as the misconception that ‘straight’ people can’t contract the virus (Forrest et al. 1997). These false assumptions, gaps in education and negative associations can have a harmful impact on the mental and physical health of both homosexual and heterosexual pupils. Due to their low hierarchal status as pupils, many young men and women feel as if they have no voice, and thus no ability to speak up about the injustices and discrimination within the sex education policy and within the wider school environment. It is therefore up to other stakeholders, such as the government and teachers, to ensure that the sex education delivered isn’t heterosexist and that it doesn’t exclude important information that benefits all sexualities.
Government guidelines state that sex education ‘should teach young people to understand human sexuality and to respect themselves and others’ (Department for Education and Employment 2000, pp. 4). Besides this, and a few aspects that must be included in the lessons, they say that the rest is up to the schools. They are hesitant to make the lessons completely compulsory – parents can still opt their children out – a topic which is also debated, and beyond their duty of recommending an inclusive, non-discriminatory syllabus, don’t have much to do with the content of the classroom teaching. The United Nations Children’s Fund believe that this is not enough, especially in regards to HIV awareness and education, (United Nations Children’s Fund 2002) while others suggest they should be doing more to promote a curriculum that teaches about identity and behaviour not just sexual attraction and biology (Forrest et al 1997). When the government does get involved, or even makes their intention to not get involved publicly known, they often create media frenzies (Cole 2011, pp. 112) which stir up all the perceived issues with teaching a broader sex education curriculum and whether sex education should be taught at all. As a stakeholder the government argues that their practical involvement should be limited, any intervention taken usually of the theoretical legislative kind, and that the final choice of what is included or excluded should lie with the schools.
The government puts most of the responsibility for sex education and its content in the hands of the schools and their teachers. As stakeholders, the institutions and their staff are obliged to follow government policy but beyond that, wish to achieve excellence for their pupils whilst appeasing the parents of those educated. When it comes to the delivery of sex education lessons over 10% of interviewed pupils thought that their teachers weren’t knowledgeable and a further 17% believed that their teacher looked embarrassed whilst delivering the content (National Union of Students 2014, pp. 18). These statistics were taken with regards to general sex education; the figures grow worse when homosexuality is brought into the discussion. 57% of teachers interviewed in a 2001 study said that their schools did not provide LGBT+ support and of the minority who did, only 31% said that the support came from a teacher (Warwick et al 2001, pp. 7-8). This lack of guidance and information in regards to homosexuality proves the heterosexism present in sex education and that simple government advisement isn’t enough to create a diverse and inclusive system. A more shocking finding was that 38% of the teachers said that including homosexuality in the syllabus was ‘not appropriate’, a standpoint not widely or publicly expressed by many in contemporary society but still felt by some and thus a contributing factor to the syllabus, especially when such an argument is expressed by an influential stakeholder such as teachers. While this study was conducted 15 years ago some of its points still hold today, with further research showing that while teacher attitudes might have changed, teaching of homosexuality is still delivered alongside that of AIDS and HIV, as mentioned before, and biology is still favoured over identity (Buston and Hart 2001). These choices made by schools and passed down to teachers have a negative impact on their pupils but to many institutions these choices are not something to be questioned as their reasoning is seen as sound. The institutionalised heterosexism present in schools, not just in sex education lessons, makes spotting the problems difficult for the institutions involved. Even when the issues are noticed and brought to attention by outsiders or sometimes the pupils or teachers themselves, change is often not implemented as while schools are no longer inhibited by law when it comes to including homosexuality, to many teachers it is not this aspect which causes worry, but instead the threat of possible parental objections (Cole 2011).
The government stresses the importance of ‘parents as sex educators’ (Department for Education and Employment 2000, pp. 26) as ‘learning about sexuality starts at infancy and goes on throughout a person’s life’ (Cole 2011, pp. 113). However, they also remark on how sex education is an ‘area for concern for some parents’ (Department for Education and Employment 2000, pp. 26). Much of the debate surrounding whether homosexuality should be explored in sex education stems from this idea of parental objection. The government’s wariness to make sex education compulsory by law is also influenced by this, the current policy allowing parents to remain in control by permitting them to remove their children from the lessons. However, this perceived hesitance in parents isn’t as all-encompassing or widespread as many believe, with the majority of parents, in studies such as Walker and Milton’s in 2006, ‘in favour of school based sexuality education’ (Walker 2006, pp. 422). This ties in with the statistic that 85% of the general public believe that every young person should be taught about the medical and social aspects of HIV at secondary school (National Aids Trust 2014, pp. 5). Therefore, while schools are concerned about possible objections from parents, most parents are more concerned that their children receives a complete education that prepares them for the realities of adult life. Within this it must be noted that there are parents with strong objections to teaching about homosexuality within the classroom, or even of the existence of the entire sex education curriculum. The presence of these beliefs within the stakeholder makes government action, or even action within schools, to ensure that such things are taught to all and include all sexualities, very difficult as theses influential stakeholders fear negative ramifications not only from parents but from the wider public through media attention. Therefore, even while figures show that most parents believe in the importance of a well-rounded sex education, it is unlikely change will occur while there is still the threat of negative backlash.
Overall, it is clear to see the heterosexism present not only in sex education but in the wider school environment, despite progress made towards a more inclusive curriculum. The lack of strict government intervention and the fear of parental and media objections makes this unlikely to change for some time to come. While many pupils have noticed this inequality in the system, there are still those who are blind to it, especially heterosexual pupils who are unaware of the negative ramifications that a heterosexist sex education is having on their readiness to enter the diverse adult world. As discussions of equality, sexism and homophobia become more prevalent in the social world, this issue of institutionalised heterosexism will become more clear and relevant, but while the different stakeholders involved fear the reactions of one another, it is unclear how a fully inclusive curriculum can be achieved.
Allen, L. 2005. Sexual Subjects: Young People and Education. London: Springer
Buston, K and Hart, G. 2001. Heterosexism and homophobia in Scottish school sex education: exploring the nature of the problem. Journal of Adolescence 24 pp. 95-109
Cole, M. 2011. Education, Equality and Human Rights: Issues of Gender, ‘race’, Sexuality, Disability and Social Class. London: Routledge
Department for Education and Employment. 2000. Sex and relationship education guidance. London: HMSO
Department for Education and Employment. 2001. Sex and relationship education guidance. London: HMSO
Epstein, D and Johnson, R. 1998. Schooling Sexualities. Pennsylvania: McGraw-Hill Education
Forrest, S. and Biddle, G. and Clift, S. 1997 Talking about homosexuality in the secondary school. Horsham: AVERT
Local Government Act 1988
National Union of Students. 2014. Student Opinion Survey: November 2014
National Aids Trust. 2014. HIV Public Knowledge and Attitudes
The Rainbow Resource Centre. 2012. Heterosexism
United Nations Children’s Fund. 2002. Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis. London: The Stationery Office
Walker, J and Milton, J. 2006. Teachers’ and parents’ roles in the sexuality education of primary school children: a comparison of experiences in Leeds, UK and in Sydney, Australia Sex Education 6 (4) pp. 415-428.
Warwick, I and Aggleton, P and Douglas, N. 2001. Playing it safe: addressing the mental and physical health of gay and lesbian pupils in U.K. Journal of Adolescence 24 pp 129-140