Last month the Welsh Labour Government announced that parents will no longer be able to withdraw their children from relationship and sexuality education (RSE), education which is LGBT+ inclusive. This would not have been possible without a progressive government. Once again it is Labour in government that has pushed out the boundaries for equality. In Wales, where education is devolved, the Welsh Labour Government had already led the way many years ago in ensuring that RSE is compulsory in all schools. The Conservative government only finally agreed last year to make it compulsory in England, but they are still allowing parents to withdraw their children from these lessons up to the age of 15.
Teachers in Welsh Schools will know that they have the full backing of Welsh Government to deliver this curriculum. In contrast, last summer Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman criticised the UK government for lack of action over the protests against LGBT+ equality lessons that were taking place in Birmingham.
For me this debate brings back painful memories of some 30 years ago. At the time I was teaching in a large comprehensive school and in a relationship with another female teacher. This was at a time when same-sex relationships were little acknowledged and we knew very few other same-sex couples. It was then that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced the homophobic law, Section 28, which stipulated that local authorities must not “promote homosexuality” or promote “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
This language was hateful, threatening and intimidating and I was conscious that the force of the law could be used against me. Back in 1988, there were no anti-discrimination laws that covered a person’s sexual orientation, meaning that you could be fired just for being gay.
All this made it very difficult for gay teachers to be open about their sexuality, thus losing valuable opportunities to provide positive role models to young people. It undoubtedly delayed my own coming out.
But perhaps the worst thing about that law, and the fear that it instilled, was that it made it very difficult to challenge homophobic bullying effectively. Sadly bullying is not a matter confined to the past: we know from Stonewall’s research that nearly half of LGBT+ pupils today are bullied for being LGBT+, and we know the lasting damage that can cause.
Thankfully, the 1997-2010 Labour Government faced down fierce opposition and championed LGBT+ rights, including repealing Section 28, ending the ban on LGBT+ people serving in our armed forces, and bringing in civil partnerships.
And now we must continue that work, and ensure that it is absolutely the norm for LGBT+ issues to be part of the curriculum.
Thankfully the younger generation of teachers are more at ease with talking about sexuality than many of my contemporaries, but they need to know that they have our full support, not just the letter of the law. We owe it to today’s young people and the teachers who are delivering LGBT education to give them our full backing, not just in Wales but across the whole of the UK, and ensure that there is no back-sliding on this important step towards creating a genuinely inclusive society.