The news that schools are failing LGBT students when it comes to sex education may come as a surprise, given the fanfare every time a new diversity recommendation hits the headlines. But if for many young LGBT people, inadequate, wrong and even offensive information is the norm.
A recent study by Birmingham City and Sheffield Hallam universities revealed that the language used in relationship and sex education (RSE) is overwhelming heterosexual and that when it comes to safe sex for LGBT people, schools rarely cover it.
Homophobia itself might be tackled, but pupils questioning their sexuality are more likely to be told that it’s a phase or sent to discuss it with the school nurse rather than given any useful support or advice.
“There are so many excuses,” one primary school teacher tells me. If the parents aren’t against it, the head is, teachers and curriculum are both stretched and faith schools throw up their own set of problems.
But for many, this is rooted in the fear of getting it wrong. “When you speak to teachers you also become aware of the fear many feel about using the language of RSE. Words like 'gay', 'lesbian', 'transgender' are shied away from.”
At primary school, a sniggering boy once asked: "how do lesbians have sex?" We were told that we could find out when we were older - but my Catholic secondary school was less than forthcoming, beyond a suggestion that I would make a very good nun because I clearly wasn't interested in boys. Trial, error and some Buffy the Vampire Slayer lesbian fanfiction helped me establish the basics, but sexual health - and sexual enjoyment - shouldn't be left to experimentation and badly written porn.
With the shifting sands of sexual and gender identity and an education system still scarred by Section 28 (which banned local authorities from 'promoting' homosexuality), many teachers just don’t know how to broach the subject.
Primary school teacher Melanie Syrett, who leads on RSE in her school in South London, feels that the problem lies with training.
“There really aren’t enough specialists in this area influencing schools,” she explains. “Often there is no-one in school for staff to check facts with, ask about a way to say things without them blushing, or even take their lesson for them to ensure that the children receive quality-first teaching. I've watched teachers teach things that are not true, giggle through lessons and ignore whole subjects to save them from feeling uncomfortable.”
Even schools that actively include LGBT students are facing problems – one teacher, whose school has been praised by Stonewall, admits that while the topic does form part of sex ed “not as much as heterosexual sex. We do need to very clearly be more explicit about gay sex and protection”
A Stonewall spokesperson said: "Far too many LGBT young people still leave school having received no information or advice on how to lead healthy, safe relationships, and that this leaves them vulnerable to engaging in risk-taking behaviours.
"Inclusive sex and relationships education doesn’t just benefit LGBT young people, but helps all young people to develop an understanding of difference and diversity as they progress into adult life and plays a key part in tackling the endemic levels of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying we still see in schools".
It’s no secret that this is a difficult time for teachers, particularly in state schools. And many teachers, parents – and, significantly, voters - feel that schools should only be providing the three Rs without getting into the thorny territory of sex – especially gay sex or transgender issues.
The phrase ‘social engineering’ gets thrown around, as though teaching children and teenagers the basics of sex and healthy relationships comes with an instruction to try it.
But this leaves LGBT children vulnerable and without what the information that of their peers take for granted – an idea of how to keep themselves safe from STDs, what consent looks like and what sex for a queer person even is.
Jules Hillier, CEO of young people's sexual health and wellbeing charity Brook says: "It's really important for school to be a safe place for all young people regardless of their sexuality, which is why inclusive sex and relationships education is so vital. "A teacher not assuming that all relationships are heterosexual may seem like a small gesture, but for a young person in their classroom who is or thinks they might be gay, lesbian or bi, it can be a lifeline, reassuring them that they're not alone and that they deserve the same respect and attention as anyone else."
"I’m lucky,” Syrett says. “I'm trained, confident and know who to ask if I'm unsure of an answer. Our children have so many opportunities to raise their questions and for them to be answered sensitively and accurately, using the correct terminology.
“I can approach the parents and share because we meet each year. They know the content of the curriculum and that my mantra is 'people in a loving relationship'”.