Chris Jones, Ofsted’s Director, Corporate Strategy, discusses research on teaching about the protected characteristics of sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment in England’s schools.
The Equality Act 2010 was the culmination of a decade-long uplift in equality legislation. The uplift began in 2001 with changes to race discrimination law following the recommendations of the Macpherson report. It continued through into disability discrimination law in 2006 and gender discrimination in 2007. The 2010 Act consolidated these and also brought in other characteristics, most of which already had some protection under previous legislation: age, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, sexual orientation, religion and belief and (for the first time) gender reassignment status.
This legislation set a new role for public authorities through the concept of ‘duties’. The 2010 act created a ‘public sector equality duty’ (PSED). This requires every public authority to have due regard to the following:
- the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act
- advancing equality of opportunity between people who shared a protected characteristic and those who do not
- fostering good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not
In practice, the Act gives all public authorities a degree of responsibility for encouraging and promoting equality in relation to protected characteristics. The PSED guidance from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) states:
” … the general equality duty therefore requires organisations to consider how they could positively contribute to the advancement of equality and good relations. It requires equality considerations to be reflected into the design of policies and the delivery of services, including internal policies, and for these issues to be kept under review.”
‘Public authorities’ includes state-funded schools and other education providers, as well as Ofsted. Therefore, our inspectors assess the extent to which settings take steps to promote equality and diversity as well as to prevent any form of discrimination against those with protected characteristics.
The Act was contentious from the outset for certain groups, particularly in relation to characteristics relating to sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. The increasing political sensitivities in these areas have made it harder for schools to handle equalities well. For example, school staff can occasionally confuse the legal, the moral and the political, and so (often inadvertently) bring overtly political materials into their curriculum and teaching without acknowledging it as such, despite the statutory requirement of political neutrality. We have also seen recent examples of schools and parents being unable to see eye-to-eye on the content and age-appropriateness of curriculum materials used to teach primary school pupils about same-sex relationships.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) statutory guidance on relationships, health and sex education deals with schools’ responsibilities in this area. It came into force in September 2020.
Ofsted has carried out research that aimed to identify good practice in teaching some of these more contentious issues. This commentary summarises our findings in a way that we hope will be beneficial to schools as they implement the DfE’s guidance. It builds on the findings of our review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, which highlighted the importance of strong teaching of relationships, health and sex education.
There is some guidance, from the DfE and the EHRC, to help schools with the PSED. There is also some research into the effectiveness of specific support initiatives, for example from NatCen, the Institute of Physics and Lifting Limits.
However, there is a significant lack of research into how schools promote respect and build understanding in pupils around sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment issues.
Therefore, the purpose of our research was to show how respect is promoted and how discrimination and harassment are challenged and minimised in state-funded primary and secondary schools that do this successfully.
Our guiding research question was: ‘What characterises good practice in promoting respect on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment?’
At each school, we had group discussions with:
- staff (senior leaders, middle leaders and teachers with teaching assistants, respectively)
- pupils (secondary school pupils as well as Year 5 and Year 6 primary school pupils)
Questionnaires for secondary school pupils complemented the group discussions. Given that we have relied on discussions with school staff and pupils, we cannot be sure whether each school’s approach was supported by parents, which is an important limitation.
The sample is purposive. It consists of 24 state-funded schools that were deemed by informants (Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) across the Ofsted regions and external organisations or associations) to be the most successful at promoting respect across the protected characteristics of sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. We visited:
- 8 primary schools
- 14 secondary schools
- 1 special school
- 1 all through school
Eleven of the schools had a religious character: 4 Roman Catholic, 3 Church of England, 1 Jewish, 1 Muslim and 1 Sikh.
Given that the findings are based on schools chosen as examples of good practice, they are not likely to be reflective of schools more generally but may provide helpful examples to others. Even within the specially chosen sample, alongside the good practice, we have identified here some areas for improvement.
Despite the legal underpinning of the Equality Act, we found that staff promoted a culture of respect across the protected characteristics mainly for what they described as moral rather than legal reasons. They intended to improve pupils’ mental health, well-being, safety, academic outcomes and breadth of future career choices, as well as to prepare them for diversity in wider society. They described an inclusive and accepting school culture as a necessary condition for this, with school ethos and/or religious ethos to underpin shared values. The religious schools in our sample gave faith as a reason for promoting respect for pupils and others with different protected characteristics, including sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
The message of acceptance came out strongly in school culture, teaching, extra-curricular activities and pastoral support.
“School culture is everything. With the right culture, you will be able to navigate sensitive subject areas. Culture is supported by policies, procedures and systems. Our staff sign up to a value statement, which commits them to the values but also gets them to agree to behaviours that we expect and those we wouldn’t tolerate.” (Senior leaders in a secondary school)
Even though an accepting ethos provides a solid grounding for successfully promoting respect, it may not be enough to ensure continuing success. Therefore, staff in several schools said they had a culture of continuous improvement to help them meet the evolving needs of pupils and society. In these schools, self-critique was enabled by listening to staff, pupils and parents.
“There is no sense of complacency. We have staff meetings where we challenge ourselves and it isn’t always comfortable. When you look at everyday sexism, everyone thinks it’s done and dusted – and it isn’t. It is a systematic self-challenge. To be an inclusive school is something we hope to be, but never say we are.” (Senior leaders in a primary school)
Teaching across the curriculum
Teaching about matters related to sex and gender stereotypes, sexual orientations and sometimes gender reassignment was often planned and integrated across the curriculum. It was part of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, religious education (RE), relationships and sex education (RSE), English, languages, science, history, music, art, technology and so on. In schools with a religious character in our sample, teaching about sexual orientation and gender reassignment was often done alongside teaching about faith perspectives.
Different teaching methods were used, such as direct instruction, discussion and debate, research, books, stories and documentaries, workshops, making posters and displays, visiting speakers and role models. Staff and pupils highlighted the importance of learning through discussion and openly asking and responding to questions. Being aware that some pupils were unlikely to do this at home, staff enabled pupils to ask questions. They also saw this as a way of promoting independent thought. Staff were open to honest or difficult conversations with their pupils.
The selection of topics and how they were approached were generally well tailored to pupils’ age and maturity. Research has shown that children become aware of gender stereotypes from a very young age. In view of this, it is positive that some schools began challenging gender stereotypes early. This was done through stories like ‘Prince Cinders’ or ‘Dogs Don’t Do Ballet’, and through using puppets or similar activities. Some schools also felt it was appropriate to introduce the concept of different types of family from the same early age. For example, in a primary school farm, children sometimes had Mr and Mrs Farmer, but also Mr and Mr Farmer or Mrs and Mrs Farmer.
Many pupils and staff commented on the impacts of teaching about these issues. These impacts included:
- pupils gaining more knowledge – in many schools, later primary school (Years 5 and 6) and secondary school pupils are able to explain the basic terms (straight, gay, bisexual or trans)
- pupils having broadened views – as a result of knowing more, pupils said they had become more accepting
- pupils using appropriate and sensitive language
- pupils having improved behaviour – staff said they very rarely saw incidents of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying
When pupils were not exposed to these topics, they frequently resorted to learning from social media and the internet, and in some cases from friends and family. Even though the internet holds a range of good-quality resources, it also contains content that is not of a sufficient quality or accuracy, and parents are often unable to control the age-appropriateness of what children are viewing. Therefore, there are inherent risks when pupils use online content or non-expert friends and family as the main sources of information about, for example, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT).
Some pupils who struggled with finding or accepting their identity, or who were not accepted by other pupils, told us that insufficient knowledge had contributed to their low well-being and mental ill-health.
As a result of not learning enough at school, some pupils expressed concern that they ‘would not know how to help someone who came out to feel comfortable in a friendship group’ or admitted that they would struggle with accepting someone with a different sexual orientation or someone who is trans:
“I would definitely need to have a better understanding in order to accept them properly.” (Pupil in a secondary school)
As well as thinking about carefully planning their RSE curriculum, staff in the schools we visited used the established pastoral support systems to provide individual support:
“If you are encouraging pupils to be open and giving the opportunity to ask questions, you need to ensure the appropriate networks are in place. We have created a culture of it being an open school. Various levels of support. All teachers and SLT try to be very approachable and know that the pupils can talk to them.” (Senior leaders in a middle school)
From conversations with pupils in schools, 3 main features emerge as important for individual support:
- Relationships with teachers should be based on trust:
- “Most students have a good relationship with the teachers. They can trust them.”
- “We feel comfortable with heads of year or form tutors. It has to do with the relationship you have with the teacher rather than about their knowledge of sexuality and gender.”
- Pupils value having a safe or informal space to talk:
- “We have a personal teacher to talk to and a safe space.”
- Some pupils also like form time as an outlet for more comfortable group discussions.
- Having a clear pastoral system in place is important:
- “… knowing there is someone you can talk to in school.”
Teaching about sex and gender stereotypes
Many schools in our sample worked hard on minimising sex and gender stereotypes through their teaching. Staff saw breaking entrenched and negative social stereotypes as a way of broadening horizons and teaching children that ‘gender should not be an obstacle to anything you can achieve in your life’.
School staff reported that their focus on sex and gender stereotypes is important because of:
- visible differences in the representation of women and men in organisational leadership and in different academic disciplines or professions
- an early divergence between boys’ and girls’ career aspirations
- the acknowledged harmfulness of some sex and gender stereotypes
Schools’ work on sex and gender stereotypes could also help pupils who do not conform to those stereotypes, including some LGBT pupils. For example, it may contribute to reducing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying if bullying originates from stereotypical notions of boys and girls.
Teachers in most schools reported covering a range of topics in class, such as:
- male and female roles across societies and time
- changing sex and gender roles, for example parents choosing to take shared parental leave
- women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement
- important women across academic disciplines and professions
- domestic violence
- healthy relationships
- sexist language
In some schools, pupils were also taught about specifically male mental health problems and peer pressure. This addresses misconceptions, such as that ‘boys don’t cry’, or helps boys avoid harmful stereotypical behaviours dictated by their peer groups.
A middle leader from a primary school described how they challenged stereotypes through a task involving a phone call with a female scientist:
“We asked the children to draw a scientist and it was exactly as you’d expect: an old person with glasses on. So, I questioned them: why did you think that? When you start questioning them, they realise perhaps what they put down is not what they do think. That may be the first image in the head, but when you ask, pennies drop. So, I told them: we are going to have a phone call with a scientist now. Who do you think is going to call us? [And on the other end of the line is…] my cousin, a scientist, a biochemist, a girl.”
The impact on pupils’ knowledge was apparent to teachers and pupils. Interviews with pupils revealed that they were aware of different aspects of past and present inequalities and that they had open-minded attitudes about sex and gender. Staff were aware of what their pupils knew and noticed that they picked up on stereotypes in texts or exercises.
Teaching about different sexual orientations and gender reassignment
Most schools we spoke to taught about LGBT equality in group or whole-school exercises, including lessons, assemblies and guest speakers. Pupils were taught about the importance of respecting all, and not judging people because of sexual orientation or gender reassignment.
In many primary schools in our sample, pupils were introduced to LGBT role models, such as historical or present influential LGBT people. They were taught, in an age-appropriate way, about:
- different types of family, for example with a mum and dad, 2 mums or 2 dads
- appropriate language to use to refer to LGBT people
- bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying
In some primary schools we visited, they were also taught about same-sex marriage and how the law protects people with different characteristics. This was also covered in many secondary schools but with more nuance and detail, in view of pupils’ age.
Secondary school pupils in many of the sampled schools were taught about:
- the rights of LGBT people across time and societies
- current national and international issues
- the Equality Act and EHRC
- how to accept themselves for who they are
- how to support and have empathy for pupils with different protected characteristics
Successfully engaging with parents
Following the introduction of mandatory relationships education at primary, and relationships and sex education at secondary, schools are legally required to consult parents in developing and reviewing their policy for these subjects. Through consultation, most schools and parents can work together to build broad consensus and to ensure that the policy meets the need of pupils and parents and reflects the community the school serves.
However, while there are many parents who happily support curriculum choices like the ones described above, and reinforce at home what children learn in school, some do not. Parents have the right to educate their children as they see fit and it is a family’s right to have conservative faith or cultural values. Though, when parents choose to send their children to a state school, and home and school are not aligned on values, pupils sometimes grapple with mixed messages. This can result in confusion, and potential upset.
Staff navigated these issues in different ways, but what linked them all was communication – proactive and reactive. For example, if parents individually expressed dissatisfaction at their child being taught about LGBT matters, staff reported talking to them about exactly what it is they teach at school. This helped dispel misconceptions that parents may have had, although it may not have solved the fundamental disagreement.
To pre-empt misunderstandings, staff in some schools proactively communicated with parents. This is especially important in view of social media, where misinformation can spread quickly. Proactive communication took different forms, such as:
- transparently presenting the curriculum and school values on the protected characteristics. This may include:
- sharing policies and the curriculum on the website
- providing information in booklets
- signing a home–school agreement to uphold the shared values
- promoting the values of the school through community events at school or through workshops and drop-ins for parents to inform about the curriculum on LGBT matters
Rather than just inform parents, staff should also engage with them on the changes they plan to implement or – in the words of senior leaders from a secondary school – ‘about values, what they mean and how these feed into the curriculum’.
In all the schools we spoke to, staff said they promoted a respectful and inclusive culture for moral reasons. In addition, staff in the schools with a religious ethos said that their ethos was the reason for acceptance and respect of pupils with different protected characteristics, including sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment:
“The faith background gives us a common ethos. As a Catholic school, we know what the vision is. There is the outside challenge: family, society, confusion about sexuality and gender. We are made in God’s image and nothing should be stopping any child from getting as far as they possibly can. The ambition for them is there. Any bad behaviour is not accepted. Sexist attitudes – all stamped out.” (Senior leaders in a Roman Catholic school)
“[We] promote the British, school and faith values and monitor closely. Faith-based school is all about being respectful and tolerant. We have an Islamic saying of the week which is all about the holistic view of a child. That helps them to understand whoever is homosexual/trans, it is absolutely fine.” (Teachers in a Muslim school)
The message of acceptance came out strongly through school culture, teaching, extra-curricular activities and pastoral support.
Previous research also suggests that some schools with a religious character have stronger pastoral care systems in place for pupils and place equality at the centre of their ethos because of their religious beliefs. Most of the schools we spoke to used guidance published by their respective religious authorities, for example from the Church of England Education Office, The Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Catholic Education Service. In those documents, teaching about and supporting LGBT-related matters are seen as compatible with religious belief and a duty to LGBT inclusion is acknowledged because of religious values, such as acceptance or respect for others.
However, we must acknowledge that there can be tension between the protected characteristics of sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, and religion and belief, and that is a challenge for some schools and/or parents. We visited schools in the state sector for this research, and we are aware that these issues can play out very differently in the relatively small number of independent faith schools we inspect.
Guidance and support for schools and teachers
Most schools we spoke to would like clearer guidance from the DfE and other agencies on how to approach what can be sensitive and difficult subjects. A small number of staff were positive, to an extent, about the freedom they have under the current RSE guidance. They appreciated being ‘given space’ to:
- ‘choose how to deliver the agenda’
- teach what they think is age appropriate
- adapt what they teach
However, the overwhelming majority of schools were asking for much more specific guidance about sexual orientations and gender reassignment, both for schools and for parents:
“Guidance is too woolly – take it out or give us better guidance – [we need] greater clarity over what should be taught by when.” (Middle leaders in a primary school)
There was a lot of confusion around schools’ teaching obligations. This stemmed from:
- the lack of a detailed central curriculum
- the grey areas (awareness that primary schools can opt not to teach LGBT issues if they do not deem this age-appropriate and after consultation with parents)
- perceived contradictions in the information published by the DfE
Leaders were mostly asking for information on what should or should not be taught at each age. Headteachers were left to decide when something should be taught, but some perceived this as a lack of support from DfE.
There was confusion among schools about what the various pieces of guidance required teachers to teach in relation to LGBT matters in particular. Guidance identifies a minimum requirement, but does not contemplate any ceiling on what can be taught at what age, so there can be pressure to go further, potentially causing conflict with some parents.
There is also a scarcity of research that could inform teaching or pastoral support:
“It would be useful to have more research. There is so little out there.” (Middle leader in a primary school)
This was also why staff wanted the DfE and Ofsted to share good practice. They wanted to learn from other schools, similar or different to their own, and would like opportunities for learning discussions.
There is a lot of choice among external training and resource providers, but school leaders are often unsure of their quality or alignment with the law. A headteacher in a secondary school explains that they are:
“… very nervous of other providers. Would love someone to filter this for us instead of finding out the hard way. Someone comes in with completely inappropriate tone. I like the idea of having a national standard… These people crop up and get funding from wherever… emailing schools the whole time. There is a place for people with specific skills who can deliver better than the teachers. Would be nice to have a bank that we can dip into that’s already been vetted.”
Similar issues exist with the wealth of available teaching resources. Given the lack of expertise and training, staff needed help with the selection or adaption of resources for different year groups and would like ‘a pool of quality resources for schools’. A similar message came through in a large-scale study from the DfE.
Many of the above issues were also identified in a National Education Union (NEU) and National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) survey. This showed that the main barriers to teaching compulsory RSE lessons were:
- lack of teacher confidence in the subject
- competing workloads
- the cost of training
- difficulty in finding high-quality training and quality approved resources
- lack of clearer guidance
As we have shown in this commentary, many schools we visited were successful in this area and were doing well in fulfilling their legal duties and what they saw as their moral obligation. For those schools that need a bit more support, we hope this report has been a useful starting point.