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Return of Section 28: Why some UK schools have banned ‘promoting’ gay issues

Return of Section 28: Why some UK schools have banned ‘promoting’ gay issues

Britain’s government likes to claim it is one of the most LGBT-friendly in the world. But now it has emerged students at some of its state-funded schools are under an anti-gay policy – with echoes of Russia’s law and language straight from UK legislation the country’s gay community thought it had got rid of a decade ago.

Gay Star News broke the story of the policy banning ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in state-funded but independently managed ‘academy’ schools in Britain yesterday (18 August). Within hours three schools found to hold the policy had grown to eight and now campaigners report 45 or more academies have a version of it. A petition is calling for the policy to be scrapped.

Those words have particular resonnance for two reasons. Firstly because the language echoes the much wider legislation in Russia currently sparking global concern. And secondly, in the British context, because the policy takes the LGBT people back to the 1980s when a previous Conservative government brought in a similar law nationwide – scrapped in 2003.

Is this what the current, officially gay-friendly, UK Conservative government’s hands-off approach to schools is really about?

Or is there something else at work here? An unfortunate failure by the Department for Education (DfE)? Civil servants in a funk about public opinion? Cock-up, conspiracy or even Christian backlash?

The answer is probably a bit of all three – but the biggest culprit is the DfE. To understand why, you must first understand how gay issues have been dealt with in schools over the last 25 years.

In the 1980s a spate of tabloid stories about the infiltration of political correctness and the fear children were being ‘indoctrinated’ into ‘gay’ – led to the 1988 Local Government Act, with its odious Section 28.

This made it an offence for any local authority to ‘intentionally promote homosexuality’ or, even more offensively, to promote ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

In 2003, Section 28 was repealed outright. And now a modern Conservative government has given the ultimate stamp of approval to gay family relationships by backing same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the DfE – and therefore many schools – have proven a little slower to move on.

When it comes to sex and relationships education, the DfE are still working on the basis of guidance put out in 2000. Their website claims this has been updated in September 2012, but it appears as though this is only a reference to a web page update: the guidance itself has not changed in the intervening period.

A DfE spokeswoman told us: ‘Pupils should be given accurate information and helped to develop skills to enable them to understand their developing sexuality, whatever it may be, and to respect themselves and others. Our sex and relationship education guidance makes clear that schools should not promote any sexual orientation.

‘All schools can draw up their sex education policy but they must ensure that in everything they do they do not discriminate unfairly on the grounds of sexuality. The DfE will be looking into these schools.’

The status of this guidance is questionable. We have asked the DfE for clarification, but our understanding is schools must, insofar as they teach sex education (which they are not bound by law to do), ‘have regard’ to this guidance when teaching it.

The language, with its harking back to a need not to promote a particular orientation has unfortunate overtones of Section 28. It could be argued it causes the opposite difficulty: by proscribing the promotion of any orientation, it might cause problems for schools that put the case for marriage as a heterosexual institution too strongly. That, however, is untested.

It is not hard, however, to see how some schools have fallen into the trap of producing guidelines that are outwardly homophobic and widely offensive. Two main variants appear to be doing the rounds. The first, as suggested by legal blogger MTPT, seems to be a cut and paste job based around the DfE guidelines.

This version, containing the statement in some form that staff may engage in ‘objective discussions on homosexuality’ but not ‘promote it’ is, aside from that single clause, not altogether bad. It mostly comes with a raft of positive stuff about inclusion, and is operative in Swindon Academy, Stockport Academy and WHGS Academy.

Assuming that is the original cut and paste, it is not, as the same blogger implies, the one used by Colston Girl’s School, which appeared to be using a more recent and much more distasteful policy (now rescinded). This stated: ‘The governing body recognizes the need to address the issue of homosexuality and the need to provide education related to the spread of HIV/AIDS which will, of necessity, include reference to homosexuals and bisexuals. Objective discussion of homosexuality may take place in the classroom.

‘The governing body will not permit the promotion of homosexuality.’

That is clearly far more controversial, both through the direct linkage of being gay with HIV and AIDS – and also through wording that implies that ‘promotion’ of homosexuality is barred not just for staff, but for pupils too.

That same policy is used by the Crest Academies, which do, however, require discussion of HIV and AIDS to ‘include reference to homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals’, and the Grace Academies (of which there are three), who carry the same statement, but link HIV and AIDS to ‘homosexuals and bisexual behavior’!

Radcliffe School and Hackney Bridge School appear to have done their own thing, but more closely follow the first model.

Of concern to those who are worried about the encroachment of religion into teaching on sexuality is the fact Grace Academy was established by Lord Robert Edmiston, who is one of the richest individuals in the UK, and founder of international charity, Christian Vision.

During the debate on equal marriage for England and Wales in the Lords, Britain’s upper chamber of parliament, Lord Edmiston was one of those who appears to have argued gay marriage would lead to the sanctioning of incest.

None of the above quite explains why DfE guidelines that talk about orientation have been amended and a number of schools have deliberately inserted homosexuality as the thing.

Perhaps some still believe Section 28 is operative, but this is hardly likely in the case of the Grace Academies, whose guidelines appear to have been drawn up by one Judi Wood who, according to one LinkedIn profile, is also a consultant solicitor at legal 500 solicitors, Sydney Mitchell.

As for the DfE, questions now need to be asked about their commitment to diversity – at least in the LGBT sphere. Their guidance on sex and relationships absolutely needs an overhaul: for not only was it written three years before the repeal of Section 28, it also omits all mention of transgender issues.

Sex and relationships education advisory teacher, Alice Hoyle says this is of concern. According to her blog, the DfE announced in March of this year it would not be carrying out such a revision, even though the previous government had promised one.

A little further digging from Hoyle reveals further uncomfortable revelations about what the DfE is up to. They are currently revising the national curriculum. In 1999 and again in 2008, this included a vague but positive reference to equalities.

According to the Equality Act Impact Assessment, which British Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently decided was unnecessary, the national curriculum framework document reaffirmed schools’ duties under equalities legislation, and specifically referenced disability, sex, sexual identity (whatever that is), gender identity, and religion or belief.

However, by the time we reach the latest draft of the National Curriculum document (July 2013), all mention of transgender has mysteriously disappeared.

It is beyond argument some schools and academies are drawing up policies that are increasingly and openly homophobic. Some may have been put in place deliberately, others by accident.

The real culprits in all this, however, appear to be the DfE, who have not moved with the times, have failed to turn the positive noises they have made in favor of diversity into real action and who are even now creating a vacuum where policy on LGBT issues should sit, and into which all manner of bad practice is rushing.