Comment: We must change the culture of schools to celebrate equality and respect

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Jocelyn Davies writes for PinkNews on the need to improve sex and relationships education for LGBT young people in Wales.

There is a problem in our schools. Too many students experience discrimination and bullying. From a remarkably young age, gender stereotyping and intolerance shape children’s education. Research by the NSPCC found that even 10 to 12-year-olds feel real pressure to conform to gender norms. This only intensifies as children get older. Sexual harassment, homophobic bullying, racism, and prejudice against those with disabilities are all fuelled by this culture where difference isn’t tolerated.

A 2012 study by Stonewall found that that more than 55% of gay young people experience homophobic bullying and 99% reported hearing the casual homophobia of phrases like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” in school. This is unacceptable; children and young people can only learn and grow in an environment where they feel safe and supported.

Of course, there are many schools who are already working hard to successfully tackle this issue. But in too many schools, efforts are half-hearted at best. Young people who I’ve spoken to report the odd one-off lesson by a teacher who is uncomfortable with the subject, or perhaps a visiting expert they never see again, but they don’t feel they have on-going support to cope with the challenges of navigating the complexities of growing up.

We need to change the whole culture of schools. Effective sex and healthy relationships education being included in the curriculum is important, but teachers are already under pressure to squeeze in everything they need to teach. To really make a difference we need to transform the atmosphere in schools so that learning about respect, equality and healthy relationships is embedded in everything children do.

I believe there are four key steps we can take to achieve this: have at least one teacher with expertise in offering advice and assistance to students on these issues; all teachers in schools having training in giving advice and assistance to students; at least one governor in each school being designated a champion for equality and respect; and by giving young people the opportunity to be student champions to lead the campaign in their own school.

In Wales, we have an excellent opportunity to make these changes. Currently, the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Bill is making its progress through the National Assembly. The purpose of the Bill is to improve the prevention of violence and abuse. I believe education is the most important tool to help us do that, and despite the impression given by the title of the Bill, I see this as our opportunity to eradicate bullying and harassment of all types from our schools.

The Labour Welsh Government is resisting putting these changes on the face of the Bill. They claim that it will be possible to achieve change through regulations. But we have had years of non-statutory PSE in schools that has not worked. If we’re to make a real difference, it has to be put into law.

Young people should have a right to feel safe and respected in school. If we want to see all our young people succeed, we need to deliver real change.

Jocelyn Davies is the Plaid Cymru AM South Wales East