Sexuality in schools: the big picture
Sexuality in schools is just beginning to be recognised as a serious issue in the UK. Homophobic bullying is currently identified by the government as a major area of concern in schools, given its detrimental effect on the mental health of children and young people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, or who are questioning their sexuality. Reports published by the gay rights organisation Stonewall UK (Hunt and Jensen, 2007; Guasp, 2009) draw attention to the problem of homophobic bullying in UK secondary schools in stark terms, prompting a growing recognition that homophobia is prevalent in all aspects of schooling in the UK, and that equality and diversity issues around sexuality have not been addressed as directly as those around other types of discrimination such as racism. Other surveys also corroborate these findings, such as the Prevalence of Homophobia surveys conducted by the National Union of Teachers in the North West of England over the last few years (2009-2012). Pearson, Muller and Wilkinson (2007) provide an overview of various research which has repeatedly found that same-sex-attracted youth achieve lower academically than their other-sex-attracted counterparts. They note that same-sex-attracted youth are at a higher risk in general of mental health problems which can lead to disengagement from learning and social withdrawal, both of which impact negatively on academic achievement. The research presented in this paper focuses on how curriculum intervention and change may be one strategy for tackling heterosexism and homophobia in schools. We draw on data from interviews with English teachers and LGB-identified young people, as well as analysis of the national curriculum itself, in order to explore how our participants experience and understand sexual diversity issues in relation to the English curriculum in secondary schools.
Importantly, the two Stonewall Reports (Hunt and Jensen, 2007; Guasp, 2009) found that where pupils feel that they have been taught about LGBT issues in a positive way LGBT pupils are 13% less likely to experience homophobic bullying, and 60% are more likely to be happy at school and to experience their school as an accepting, tolerant and welcoming place. This suggests that the curriculum could play a part in making sexual diversity more visible and acceptable in schools. However, the Stonewall Reports also identified a lack of training and confidence in dealing with sexuality issues amongst teachers. This is a key issue that emerged clearly in the interviews with English teachers that we carried out in our own research, as we discuss later. Importantly, it is not only the LGBT pupils who are affected by homophobia in schools but everyone hearing homophobic language or witnessing and/or experiencing homophobic behaviour is affected. Therefore, it is important to tackle issues around homophobia not just as a means of ensuring the well-being of LGBT (and all other) students, but also to enable all teachers and students to feel confident in discussing and dealing with sexual diversity.
The importance of tackling homophobic bullying in schools is starting to be addressed through various government policies and guidance documents. The current government's 'programme for government' document pledges its commitment to 'help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying' (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/409088/pfg_coalition.pdf). This aim is re-iterated in the Department for Education's (2011) discussion document on the future of teacher training. In 2009, the Single Equality Bill, entitled A Fairer Future, was introduced. This was a precursor to the introduction of the Equality Act (brought into effect in 2010) designed to tackle discrimination based on race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief. In addition to this legislation, the previous and current governments have also provided published guidance and support which relates specifically to gender and sexuality in UK schools. …