The shadow of Section 28? One in five teachers 'uncomfortable' discussing LGBT+ topics

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Eighteen years on from the repeal of Section 28 and one in five teachers say they still feel uncomfortable discussing LGBT+ topics with pupils.

Research from LGBT+ charity Just Like Us and involving 6,179 teachers asked them: “How comfortable do you feel discussing LGBT+ topics with your pupils?”

A third (29 per cent) said they were “completely comfortable”, and half (52 per cent) said they were “mostly comfortable”.

However, 14 per cent said they were “not very comfortable” and three per cent felt “completely uncomfortable”.

Primary phase teachers felt even less comfortable, with 19 per cent saying they felt uncomfortable teaching LGBT+ topics and only 25 per cent “completely comfortable”.

Dominic Arnall, chief executive of Just Like Us, said that he did not blame teachers: “We don’t blame teachers for feeling uncomfortable – they may not have had the resources or personal life experiences – but all you need is a willingness to support your pupils.”

Just Like Us offers a range of free LGBT+ inclusive resources to primary and secondary schools, including lesson and assembly plans.

Section 28 existed from 1988 to 2003 and refers to Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which was enacted in May 1988 by the Conservative government.

It stopped councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” (for more, see Day, 2019). It was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and England and Wales in 2003.

Speaking on November 18, Mr Arnall said: “Today marks 18 years since Section 28 was repealed in England yet clearly things have not changed as much as we like to think and, as a result, growing up LGBT+ is still unacceptably tough.”

Statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) requires schools to teach LGBT+ issues. However, earlier this year Ofsted warned that there was “confusion” in schools as to what to teach and when, blaming a lack of clarity in the guidance (Jones, 2021).

One middle leader told inspectors: “(The) guidance is too woolly – take it out or give us better guidance. (We need) greater clarity over what should be taught by when.”

The guidance does indeed leave a lot open to the discretion of schools. It stipulates that by the end of primary pupils should be taught “that others’ families, either in school or in the wider world, sometimes look different from their family”. By the end of secondary, students should know “that there are different types of committed, stable relationships” (DfE, 2019).

The guidance adds: “Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age-appropriate in approach and content. At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson.

“Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.”

Previous research from Just Like Us has shown that LGBT+ young people are twice as likely to be bullied and have depression – an issue Mr Arnall discussed in the recent SecEd Podcast episode on anti-bullying work in schools (SecEd, 2021).

Mr Arnall continued: “When so many teachers say they’re uncomfortable discussing LGBT+ topics, such as mentioning that some families have lesbian mums, this has serious knock-on effects for LGBT+ young people’s wellbeing and mental health. Having silence around LGBT+ topics only results in shame, stigma and students feeling that they don’t belong in school.”

He added: “It is essential the government provide support and clear guidance for schools on supporting LGBT+ young people. We need to work together to improve the lives of LGBT+ young people so that young people don’t leave school feeling ashamed or depressed about who they are.”


A view from the chalkface

One London teacher who took part in the Just Like Us research – who asked to remain anonymous – gave an insight into the barriers that still remain: "I have never felt very comfortable talking about LGBT+ inclusion in school because I’ve feared parents’ negative responses.

"Many teachers I know share these concerns, however, I think that as a member of the LGBT+ community myself, these feelings are heightened because it is personal.”

This teacher says they are “lucky” to work in a school “where I could be out to my colleagues”, but they have never come out to my students and very rarely come out to parents over fears of backlash.

They continued: “Where my straight colleagues could talk about their partners easily, even if it was a casual pronoun, this was something that I couldn’t do.

"There is an overwhelming false belief that to talk about LGBT+ people or families would be to talk about sex. In reality, being LGBT+ inclusive is actually most commonly about explaining that there are different types of families, such as gay dads, wellbeing and allyship.

"The idea that we don’t talk about any relationships with children is false. As early as nursery and reception, children hear about heterosexual relationships in books and play at being a heterosexual family in the home corner. They are constantly bombarded with cisgender, heterosexual people and pupils should be learning that LGBT+ people simply exist."

  • Day: Section 28: What was it and how did it affect LGBT+ people? BBC, November 2019: https://bbc.in/3cK2xtW
  • DfE: Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education (statutory guidance), June 2019: https://bit.ly/3x6QdwM
  • Jones: Research commentary: Teaching about sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment, Ofsted, July 2021: https://bit.ly/2Uvu78h
  • Just Like Us: www.justlikeus.org
  • SecEd Podcast: Effective anti-bullying work in schools (guests include Dominic Arnall), November 2021: https://bit.ly/3Hc35qK
  • SecEd Podcast: RSHE in Schools, November 2020 (including discussion about teaching LGBT+ topics): https://bit.ly/2UCzU8X


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