School's Out: Why Scotland’s LGBTI+ education reform is so important

At the end of 2018, news broke that Scotland will be the first country in the world to embed LGBTI+ history in all school curriculums. We explore the impact of this historical reform

Feature by Megan Wallace | 07 Jan 2019
  • LGBTI+ education reform illustration

Like many a queer woman too young for The L Word but too old to have grown up amid semi-regular lesbian plot lines on Hollyoaks, I first really learned about lesbianism in 2013, from Blue is the Warmest Colour. Yes, this is painfully cringeworthy, but I’m far from an isolated case. In the dark days before Riverdale and pre-Killing Eve, representation of LGBTI+ folks in the media (or elsewhere) was near non-existent. Things may well be on the road to change now, but when I was younger misconceptions abounded. As I struggled with the guilt and self-hate I felt as a queer person, the world seemed pretty bleak. This was made considerably worse by the popular consensus that lesbians were little more than the barometer of poor fashion decisions, and bisexuality was just a drunken experiment for the male gaze. 

While I knew I was into girls, it also felt like something I could never be open about — at least until my days of polyester school shirts were finally behind me. It was only later, when I was older and in contact with queer people and spaces, that I was able to learn about LGBTI+ history and the achievements of the community to which I now proudly belong. Perhaps this is why I felt so overwhelmed in November when I learned that Scotland would be the first country in the world to introduce LGBTI+ education in schools, covering history and identity, while also making a concerted effort to combat homophobia and transphobia. Finally, queer kids will be growing up within an education system that centres their experience, rather than perpetuates their marginalisation. Moreover, the government’s decision was also a vital move to target the very real problem of LGBTI+ discrimination in schools. Although it’s been many years since Chris in my S1 Maths class called me a “weirdo lesbian,” life can still be a nightmare for LGBTI+ school pupils.

At least this is what findings by Time For Inclusive Education (TIE), an advocacy group instrumental in bringing about the recent changes to Scottish education, would suggest. TIE’s research within Scottish schools underscores the necessity for measures to be taken to improve the situation for LGBTI+ students. The research found that nine out of ten LGBTI+ Scots experience homophobia at school, and 27% reported they had attempted suicide after being bullied. The investigation also found that there was little understanding in schools about prejudice against people with variations of sex characteristics and intersex bodies.

These findings are not exclusive to TIE, and have been echoed by other groups and charities. As Cara Spence, Head of Programmes at the charity LGBT Youth Scotland, has written: “Young people have consistently told us that education is the area where they experience the most discrimination and LGBT young people continue to be bullied simply for being who they are. Importantly, evidence shows us that transgender young people are having the toughest time in school and teachers lack the confidence to support them effectively.”

The fact that the Scottish government has acknowledged this problem and is actively looking for ways to improve the lives of LGBTI+ students is certainly laudable. The beauty of the plan for queer education is that it serves multifold purposes: LGBTI+ pupils discover more about their community, while cis-het students learn more about why transphobia and homophobia are wrong. Teachers are encouraged to improve their knowledge of LGBTI+ issues and will be given the tools to actively and effectively support their students. But why is this inclusive education just limited to Scotland? It’s not the case that LGBTI+ people stop existing once you cross the border, so why should disparities in school curriculums suggest this?

Looking at the UK more broadly, research by Stonewall shows that 45% of lesbian, gay and bi students have been bullied for their sexual orientation, 64% of young trans people have been bullied at school, and 80% of secondary school teachers have not received specific training on tackling homophobia in schools. There are clearly issues in UK schools with LGBTI+ discrimination, to such an extent that substantial educational reform should be rolled out everywhere. Let’s hope that Scotland will be the first of many governments to implement inclusive education reforms.

In order to hear more about what queer individuals from other parts of the UK think about the prospect of educational reform, I reached out to members of the LGBTI+ community. Holly, a 23-year-old bisexual woman from Bath, is behind the idea, highlighting the important role education plays in stamping out discrimination. “I think if LGBT history/ literature/ sex ed was taught in school it would be highly validating [and] a way for the school – which, let’s face it, may as well be the entirety of society at that age – [to recognise] that queer, trans, and non-binary people have as much right as anyone else to enjoy sex or make art. Learning the history would send a signal that says that the oppression of people based on their sexuality is categorically wrong.” Tom, a queer, non-binary person living in London is more reticent. “Of course, but it would depend how they taught it. I remember in school we studied In Memoriam by [English poet, Alfred] Tennyson and it was suggested it might actually be a love poem for his 'friend' Hallam but it was all very much an 'isn’t that naughty,' 'hush hush' kind of thing.” 

Tom is right to say that caution must be exercised — but this is true in both the Scottish and wider UK contexts. LGBTI+ education in schools must not erase or silence more marginalised members of the queer community, and it must also be linked to creating a more representative curriculum in other ways. Namely, an accurate history of LGBTI+ oppression must factor in the UK’s imperial past, and the British Empire’s role in criminalising homosexuality across its colonies. Any movement towards a more “inclusive” education must be intersectional, and ready to delve into the nuances of identity and deconstruct multifaceted discrimination. Then, finally, the burden will be taken off specific marginalised groups to fight their own battles, and a wider proportion of the public will have the knowledge and tools to tackle inequality.