UK equality watchdog recommends that children as young as 11 could be quizzed on their sexuality

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Children as young as 11 could be asked if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning according to guidance issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The UK’s equality regulator is advising organisations including schools, health care and youth groups to create pilot schemes to monitor the sexuality of young people. The watchdog is keen to ensure that LGB young people are not told that their sexuality is a “phase” that will pass.

Although the children involved in the study will be informed of the nature of the survey, parental consent for them to take part will not necessarily be required.

The proposals are included in a paper published by the EHRC, ‘Researching and monitoring adolescence and sexual orientation: Asking the right questions, at the right time’, authored by Dr Elizabeth McDermott of the University of York.

The paper argues that “evidence suggests that young people can experience disadvantage due to their sexual orientation, such as homophobic bullying, mental health issues, rejection from family and friends and increased risk of homelessness. The extent and impact of this disadvantage has not been systematically captured to date and constitutes a major evidence gap.” Dr McDermott argues that the Equality Act 2010 requires the public bodies to protect people of all ages from discrimination as a result of their sexuality. But the lack of evidence based research into the sexuality of children and young people hampers the ability for this protection to properly occur.

The paper says: “Evidence suggests that by the age of 12 young people are dealing with emerging sexual feelings and attraction to others. Through the teenage years, some young people do begin to identify their sexual orientation, and others do not, or are just unsure. Young people also begin to identify the actual/perceived sexual orientation of others and this underpins homophobic bullying. Existing studies suggest that it is practically and ethically possible to capture evidence on sexual orientation in adolescence through research and monitoring, in order to better understand disadvantage.”

Young people could be asked if they can define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, queer, pansexual, genderqueer, a sexual, pan-romantic or trisexual.

The EHRC argues that while it is generally good practice to obtain parental consent for children to be part of research studies, this may not be practical in the case of this piece of research. The body argues that as many young people are unlikely to be out to their parents, it may be problematic to obtain consent.

Graham Stuart, Conservative chairman of the education select committee, told the Sunday Times that the plans for the survey are “invasive, sinister and threatening.” He added: “School should be a place of safety, not a place where they are picked over for the purposes of some quango; and many children won’t understand what they are talking about.”

However, reducing homophobic bullying is a key education policy commitment of the coalition government. The EHRC argues that reducing incidents of homophobic bullying within schools may be hard to achieve without credible research into the sexuality of young people.