Alarmingly, the answer to the question above is perhaps not. In fact, 67 per cent of staff in schools do not feel adequately prepared to teach same-sex marriage, according to research recently carried out by Teacher Support Network. So why are some teachers not ready to tackle these issues?
Faith is one suggestion. A teacher we polled from a Catholic school told us: “When the gay marriage bill was being passed, the priest ... informed the boys that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.”
Another added: “The intake of the school (I work in) is more than 90 per cent Muslim and I know parents would be quite unhappy with any LGBT issues being raised.”
Indeed, a common reason cited by the staff we surveyed is pupils’ parents being opposed to their children being taught about LGBT matters.
One respondent said that while their school is willing to educate about these issues, “our last attempt to tackle homophobic bullying ... resulted in our parents removing their children and involving the media”.
Another teacher we surveyed said that the primary reason for this is that some teachers are “frightened of parents’ reactions to even very low-key anti-homophobic work”.
Some teachers said they feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality in the classroom because of their personal beliefs, as another teacher we surveyed told us: “My view is don’t ask and don’t tell. These are private matters and not at all work-related.”
Perhaps another factor to consider is discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity in schools.
In the poll, 67 per cent said they have been subject to or witnessed harassment and 48 per cent have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. This may account for some of the reticence of teachers to teach LGBT issues, with our research finding that discrimination has mainly come from students (68 per cent).
Even more worryingly, 47 per cent said that they have been discriminated against by colleagues, with one teacher telling us they have seen people “sacked for ‘coming out’ and harassed frequently”. This has had a significant impact on LGBT teachers’ confidence and self-esteem, with 20 per cent of respondents admitting that harassment has made them consider leaving the profession altogether.
Yet perhaps one key issue is preparation – are teachers simply not well enough prepared? More than a quarter of the staff we surveyed said they do not feel comfortable providing information on LGBT matters.
One told us: “I don’t feel comfortable teaching any subject outside my expertise.” Another admitted: “I do not know enough about equality to feel I could answer questions.”
A third respondent admitted to feeling “uncertain about my own role and how to respond to personal questions without either giving away too much information or being seen as ‘promoting’ homosexuality’”. This teacher clearly indicated that they do not feel prepared enough. A fourth added: “I would want to be properly informed and trained (on teaching LGBT issues).”
So, how can schools prepare teachers to teach these kinds of issues? No school leaders have publicly commented on how they intend to teach LGBT issues but the government has released a factsheet, advising that as with any other issue, teachers will have “the clear right to express their own beliefs ... as long as it is done in an appropriate and balanced way” (see further information).
Teachers will be expected to teach the legal position of marriage in England and Wales but they will not be expected to endorse views which go against their beliefs.
The factsheet also outlines that parents will continue to have the right to withdraw their children from sex education and relationship lessons that they do not consider appropriate.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also issued guidance on how to teach same-sex marriage in schools, stating that everybody within a school is entitled to their beliefs but that teachers need to teach “to develop an understanding of difference and reduce prejudice (in schools)”.
In spite of this, there is, as yet, very little practical guidance for schools on how to teach these issues. In the months ahead, plans and additional resources will need to be developed, such as preparing specialised lesson plans for LGBT issues and briefing teachers on what to expect. In its simplest form, this could involve updating lesson materials to reflect changes such as equal marriage, or introducing guidelines on how to handle questions from pupils.
Although this issue may be a difficult one in faith-based schools, all school leaders now have a unique opportunity to foster an environment in which their staff, regardless of sexual orientation, are treated equally and with respect.
Governors in particular must seek to develop a culture in their schools where a zero-tolerance approach is taken to harassment in the workplace based on sexuality.
Responsible teaching now requires that all schools help pupils to recognise that the right to love and to enter into the institution of marriage if they so wish is now a reality. Respecting this is surely the hallmark of a tolerant, fair and progressive society.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).