Children have a right to know about LGBT families – EHRC Chair

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

The Equality and Human Rights Commission calls on the Government to end the ambiguity on teaching of LGBT rights, saying no child should be made to think that who they are is something to be ashamed of. 

Ten years ago David Cameron publicly apologised for Section 28, the legislation which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. A decade on, and as the protests outside Birmingham schools show, we are still grappling with how to talk to children about same-sex relationships. 

It is astounding that the idea of teaching children about tolerance and respect for others has had the opposite affect and triggered more division and debate.

A school should be a safe space for children to learn and grow. It should provide a safe and nurturing environment where children can be equipped with the knowledge and skills to become active citizens of the 21st century. Schools should be spaces where we all learn to be tolerant and respectful of others, including all types of families, faiths and lifestyles. 

Sadly some schools are being placed in a difficult position because of the ambiguous guidance from the Government on teaching same-sex relationships. Head teachers should not have to debate with parents to justify their decision as to whether or not to teach about the existence of LGBT families. The Government’s guidance needs to be more explicit and must clarify that when teaching about others’ families, this must include LGBT families. This change would remove current uncertainly and ensure that more children receive this important teaching. It would reduce tensions by moving the debate away from the school gates - where we have seen clashes between teachers - and shift it back to where it should rightly be - with  government.

Put yourself in a child’s shoes and consider how it must feel to walk past banners and crowds before you enter school. What message does that send to an LGBT child or the child of LGBT parents?

No child should be made to think that who they are, or the makeup of their family, is something to be ashamed of. Such negative messages have profound consequences for a child’s sense of self-worth and resilience. Moreover, teaching about the existence of, and respect for, LGBT people can help prevent bullying and stop prejudice developing. 

This approach should not be controversial in a country where we value the right not to be discriminated against and where same-sex relationships have been legally recognised for over ten years. While same-sex relationships are not accepted by some religions, no one can deny that they exist and are lawful. Children have a right to know about all sorts of families and teaching about the existence of LGBT families should not undermine the tenets of the beliefs of those who disagree. 

Children can currently be withdrawn from certain aspects of education to protect religious freedoms - but a child’s best interests must come first. With growing divisions in our society, the need to foster good relations between different communities is increasingly important. Children aren’t born with prejudice, and schools play an important part in preventing it from emerging. To do this schools must be inclusive places where children with different beliefs and backgrounds can mix and learn about each other and their differences. 

The importance of a strong commitment to inclusive teaching for children is not, however, relevant  only to LGBT issues. A recent study from Liverpool Hope University noted that being taught about Islam and visiting mosques were the most common reason for parents withdrawing children from religious education classes. This trend is extremely worrying and should be prevented by clear guidance from Government that such reasons are invalid.

We pride ourselves on how far we have come as a society but too often we are faced with reminders that the job is not yet finished. Women still face sexual harassment at work; gay couples are attacked on buses or on the streets; and disabled people are often treated like second-class citizens. Teaching young children that all people are different, but that differences must be respected, will in my view break down the barriers of prejudice.  Only by equipping children to be citizens of 21st century Britain - a diverse society with different traditions and freedoms - will we begin to heal the current divisions in society.