Jason Smith argues that freeing kids - straight and gay - from the need for excruciating sexuality lessons might be a good thing.
News that the charity LGBT Youth North West received £63,000 funding to run an LGBT centre in Manchester was widely reported last week as the UK’s first gay school. While the charity hasn’t ruled out opening such a school, it insists that at the moment all they have is a lease on a building. The possibility of such a school has been described as both creating a cocooned ghetto that will foster division and segregation and, alternatively, as an important step towards creating a safe space away from mainstream schools, which are, it seems, the last bastions of homophobia. Both reactions strike me as problematic.
The reasons given for a possible LGBT school are that a culture of bullying is so engrained that educational attainment is disrupted, self-esteem is damaged and truancy becomes a survival mechanism. Statistics from the Lesbian & Gay Foundation (LGF) suggest that LGBT people are still at greater risk from suicide and mental-health problems than heterosexuals. At least one in five lesbians have attempted suicide and the LGF says the suicide rate for gay youngsters is up to three times higher than for their heterosexual peers. Figures from Stonewall’s School Report 2012 paint an equally grim picture. The charity says 16 per cent of gay and bisexual boys have attempted suicide and 57 per cent have thought about taking their own life in the UK.
We hear a lot about bullying these days. It has effectively been transformed from an unpleasant rite of passage into something which can potentially warp children for life. While society has clearly become more accepting of all types of lifestyles and differences, the reality of childhood - that children are often cruel to each other - is now considered so damaging that the answer is segregation. You wonder if proposed schools for ginger pupils, those who wear glasses, nerds, and other routinely picked-upon groups will follow.
For those who have come out against gay schools, the reasons are clear. Gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: ‘The real way to deal with homophobic bullying is not to take kids out of school, but to stop the bullying and educate pupils on gay understanding and acceptance.’ Ruth Hunt of Stonewall argues ‘it is possible to create safe and inclusive environments where all pupils can be themselves’. Straightaway, I’m imagining a ‘gay understanding and acceptance class’, with raucous laughter filling the school halls and unwanted attention being given to the kid everyone thinks is gay, whether s/he is or not and the junior teacher running out the classroom in tears – or was that just sex-education lessons at my school?
There’s a bigger problem here though: the notion that every hurtful comment and unregulated exchange between children needs to be monitored and controlled in a safe space of understanding and acceptance. The idea that some solution must be found for every bad thing that happens, that all interaction between pupils is potentially problematic and that schools must address this, is just as bad an idea as separate, segregated schools.
Chrissie Daz, a teacher in the Midlands, explains to me that concepts such as gender and sexuality at first mean very little to children. It’s a gradual process, but children learn to position themselves and by necessity that involves a certain amount of belittling and taunting of and from others as a way of engraining one’s own sense of belonging. It requires a fairly free space in which children can be with other children and get up to all kinds of mischief. Learning how to deal with being on the receiving end of other children’s hostility is a necessary part of becoming an adult.
So while no one is suggesting that children be left alone to insult and batter each other - that would be an abdication of adult authority - there does seem to be some truth in the old adage that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Confining kids to ‘safe spaces’ is a counterproductive attempt to wrap children in cotton wool and can only result in young adults who find it difficult to cope in the real world.
If children learning how to become adults by interacting with their peer group has become problematic then so too has the idea of trusting teachers and schools to get on with their job. The government’s interest in what goes on in schools shows no sign of abating. Schools must all be inspected, measured, categorised and put in league tables. This failure to leave education professionals to do what they do best is why free schools seem to offer some much needed space for experimentation. I like the idea of having a variety of types of schools, trying different things, even things that seem wacky to many people, but most importantly being freed from quite so much state meddling. As with faith schools, parents should be able to send their child to a school which follows their belief system, or espouses none. If no suitable school exists, they should be free to set up a school of their own.
In the interest of experimentation and variety I therefore find myself inclined to favour the ‘gay school’ idea. I do wonder what’s going to happen when the gay kids start bullying each other and, as sexuality is not fixed, half the class decide they’re straight after all. Schools should be about inspiring the next generation with the best of human knowledge and that surely means an education which has the confidence to equip kids with the necessary learning to choose whatever sexuality they wish and live in a tolerant society where they have to accept that not everyone is going to accept their lifestyle choice. To try and ensuring good mental health and self-esteem by teaching acceptance of homosexuality is a waste of school time. Maybe a gay school will be free to focus on subject knowledge and inspiring children.
Related Battle of Ideas debates
The new sex education: colonising our children’s emotions?
Born this way?
Free schools: myth and reality
Are the kids alright?
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