I sit at home setting lessons online with a cup of tea and a healthy supply of chocolate – the UK national lockdown has its perks. I have never felt so relaxed teaching in all my 10-year career. Things are calm. No talking students punctuating my hard-planned lesson. So I sit back in my chair and think.
My thoughts drift and lead me into the next academic year – will it be this easy? Probably not. But for other reasons. Schools in the UK are about to see the biggest shakeup in Sex and Relationship Education (RSE) since 1988. That was the year the national curriculum was introduced – a prescriptive approach to learning set by the government. And how times have changed.
The same year, a local government act prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” and the “teaching in maintained schools of the acceptability of homosexuality as a ‘pretended’ family relationship”. This non-acceptance of a ‘different’ kind of family was in response to the publication of a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – probably the first English-language children’s book to discuss homosexuality. It is hard to fathom this was only 30 years ago. Yet over this period, a diet of primary school books like And Tango Makes Three and Prince & Knight have influenced a gradual, but steady change in more mainstream acceptance of LGBT freedom and equality.
The pursuit of acceptance and equality for the LGBT community has been at the heart of this new RSE teaching material. But it has also fuelled antagonism, like the high-profile protests outside a primary school in Birmingham (a major UK city). Mainly Muslim parents have picketed the school in response to its relationship and equality programme called ‘No Outsiders’; lessons about embracing differences including race, religion, gender and sexuality. This is one school’s approach to teaching students to accept and treat different groups equally regardless of their group identity (a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group). More so then ever before this includes the LGBTQI+ community because sexual orientation and gender reassignment are now protected characteristics under equality law in the UK.
As a teacher who will still be a teacher when the new curriculum rolls into the classroom in September, I’ve sat back and watched and listened. There are strong, sometimes aggressive voices on both sides. The social, religious and political issues this new curriculum raises will mean the tensions are here to stay.
So I started to think about the inevitable questions these tensions raise. Whose responsibility should it be – parent or school – to teach children these complex topics? Who knows, anyway, when such issues are “age appropriate”? How much more in loco parentis are schools going to become? Are we oversexualising our children, giving them little time to exist in innocence? Will we ever reconcile the religious and secular values systems in such matters? Is group identity being used as a weapon in the pursuit of equality? But as I played over these questions in my head, I knew there was something missing from the conversation.
Knowing that what I and my colleagues teach will provide valuable guidance to how the students think about and interact with different groups, I sat back and pondered. I started to visualise. I saw myself in next year’s classroom. And I asked the question: What kind of ethical narrative would I like my students to emerge with?
After some thought, my heart would be for my students to see that the acceptance and equality of an individual goes beyond group identity, beyond sexual orientation and gender reassignment. I want my students to learn that equality starts with our being before our doing.
This is where I believe the teaching of equality in relationship and sex education should begin.
When I step into my classroom each morning and look around – before I know anything about my students’ self-expression, feelings, or doing – what do I notice about them? What is it that means as a teacher I treat them equally, in a way that reflects their dignity? I look around and I see we all have life; we all have breath. We are of one blood, one species. We live here on this one earth. We all have a brain, a heart, and hopes and dreams. For my students, this is a description not of their doing, but a description of their being.
It is this being, this dignity, which is at the heart of the document that gives equality such expression in so many countries. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. It is this same language and idea that finds an echo chamber in some of the most liberating and equalising documents of western civilisation. Whether it’s the 1215 Magna Carta that established principles of individual equality before the law in England, or the US Declaration of Independence expressing this famous, almost spiritual clause, “that all men are created equal”, these documents demand an acceptance and equality that stems from our being, not our doing. Because we are human beings, first and last. Because we are a special kind of creature, who those penning these liberty-giving documents knew are created in the image of God.
When we interact with someone – a student, a colleague, a gay or trans person – our aim is to do so with the dignity their being demands. We are living, sentient beings, full of life and wonder, and the way we treat each other should go some way in to reflecting that wonder. Acknowledging that, above our group identity, we have a greater identity, one that transcends our tribes and speaks beyond our doing into our being; a being that reflects an inherent dignity. A dignity arising from the capacity to act autonomously, to think, to create, to communicate, to love and be loved. This is where we are equal.
This is the equality those founders of the human rights documents wanted to protect. In their eyes, because each human has a common origin, a common birth, a common identity – acceptance and equality come not from who we are but whose we are. An equality stemming not from our doing but from our being.
This, I believe, is a healthy place for relationship and sex education to begin.