Frequently Asked Questions about Stonewall’s work in schools and colleges
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Frequently Asked Questions about Stonewall’s work in schools and colleges

Published in December 2021

At Stonewall, we stand for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning and ace (LGBTQ+) people everywhere. We imagine a world where all LGBTQ+ people are free to be ourselves and can live our lives to the full.

Over the last 32 years, we have helped create transformative change in the lives of LGBTQ+ people in the UK. Today, we have equal rights to love, marry and have children, and our lives, families and relationships are represented as part of the national curriculum in most of the UK.

As a human rights charity, our campaigns drive positive change in public attitudes and public policy. Some of our current campaigns are:

  • Ban Conversion Therapy: We are calling for a legally enforceable ban on conversion therapy across the UK, with support for survivors and training for frontline professionals.
  • Safe, Seen, Heard: Gathering and sharing young LGBTQ+ people’s hopes and experiences to set the agenda for the future of inclusive education.
  • Support Rainbow Families: Tackle the inequities facing LGBTQ+ people trying to form a family of their own, particularly through IVF.
  • Protection for LGBTQ+ Afghans and fairer outcomes for LGBTQ+ refugees here in the UK.
  • Rainbow Laces: Making sport everyone’s game and challenging attitudes towards LGBTQ+ inclusion across sport.
  • Inclusive legal recognition: Ensuring our lives and relationships are ecognized in the law and official documentation, whether that’s our relationships, as parents, or our gender.

We also ensure LGBTQ+ people can thrive throughout our lives by building deep, sustained change programmes with the institutions that have the biggest impact on us, whether we’re learning, working, praying or playing sport. We deliver this through a number of programmes, including our School and College Champions programme, our Children and Young People’s Services programme, our Sport programmes, and our Diversity Champions programme.

We are incredibly proud of our education programmes, which were set up in 2004 to give practical support to teachers following the end of the Section 28. We now work with primary schools, secondary schools, special schools, colleges, multi academy trusts, and local authority children and young people’s services. 

Our programmes give guidance, support and resources to organisations in England, Scotland and Wales on supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people in inclusive education, tackling bullying, meeting their safeguarding responsibilities and their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. We also provide support and tools for organisations to improve their practice beyond the legal minimum, to ensure that they are creating a culture where all LGBTQ+ children and young people can thrive, and where LGBTQ+ families are recognised and respected.

Over the last few months there has been some incorrect information in the press about our work with schools, colleges and children and young people’s services and so we wanted to answer any questions that might have been raised. 

A note on acronyms: our work is so that all LGBTQ+ people are free to be themselves, however some links or statutory regulations we refer to below may use LGBT, and in which case we will mirror that language.

Do all schools and colleges need to work on LGBTQ+ inclusion?

Getting LGBTQ+ inclusion right is really important. This includes schools’ legal and statutory requirements, including under the Equality Act 2010, the Public Sector Equality Duty (where applicable) and statutory guidance on relationships, sex, sexuality, sexual health and parenthood education from relevant governments.

The Equality Act 2010 outlines nine protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment 
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race 
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

The Act protects people from unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the basis of any protected characteristic. 

The Public Sector Equality Duty (s149(1) of the Equality Act 2010) places a duty on bodies carrying out public functions, in the exercise of those functions, to have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimization and any other conduct prohibited by or under the Act – including because of the protected characteristic of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
  • Advance equality of opportunity – which may include the need to:
    • Remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by those who are LGBTQ+ that are connected to their LGBTQ+ identity
    • Taking steps to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ people that are different to those who are not LGBTQ+
    • Encouraging LGBTQ+ people to participate in public life or any other activity where participation is disproportionately low
  • Foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it – e.g. between LGBTQ+ pupils and those who are not LGBTQ+.

There are clear examples of what ‘due regard’ means from Paragraph 2.20 of Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Technical Guidance.

To help meet these duties, schools, colleges and settings should tackle all forms of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying and take proactive steps to promote respect and understanding of LGBTQ+ people and the issues that affect them. They should also set specific, measurable and age- and developmentally appropriate equality objectives, such as reducing levels of HBT language and bullying. 

In England, The Department for Education’s Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education Statutory guidance states that:

"In teaching Relationships Education and RSE, schools should ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met, and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect. Schools must ensure that they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010, (please see The Equality Act 2010 and schools: Departmental advice), under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are amongst the protected characteristics.

"Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age appropriate in approach and content. At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson. Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum."

For English schools who want to know more about best practice consult our LGBT-inclusive RSHE: Putting it into practice guide. 

In England, Ofsted will inspect the extent to which a school ‘complies with the relevant legal duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010, including, where relevant, the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Human Rights Act 1998’. Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook states that 'records and analysis of bullying, discriminatory and prejudiced behaviour, either directly or indirectly, including racist, sexist, disability and homophobic/biphobic/transphobic bullying, use of derogatory language and racist incidents' should be made. 

Additionally, Ofsted’s guidance on Inspecting teaching of the protected characteristics in schools highlights that the ‘curriculum should be planned and delivered so that children develop age-appropriate knowledge and understanding during their time at the school. In secondary schools, this includes age-appropriate knowledge of the protected characteristics of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.'

In Wales, Estyn are responsible for ensuring that schools adhere to their statutory requirement to “promote equality, eliminate discrimination and foster good relations on the basis of ‘protected characteristics”. Last year Estyn produced a thematic report on good practice for supporting LGBT learners, which highlighted that schools must record all instances of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and that instances should be recorded and trends identified and acted upon. Estyn’s guidance for inspectors also requires inspection on whether ‘the provider develops their curriculum to fully reflect the nature of their context, including designing learning activities that reflect the cultural, linguistic and diverse nature of Wales and the wider world, including how the provider plans for teaching pupils about the history and experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and LGBT+ people’.

The Scottish Government agreed in 2018 to implement a series of recommendations from the LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group in full, with Scotland set to become the first country in the world to have LGBT inclusive education embedded throughout the curriculum. The LGBT Inclusive Education Implementation Group has been facilitating the implementation of the recommendations, which includes reforms to practice and guidance, inspections, the recording of bullying incidents, and the development and delivery of professional learning and teaching resources. In September 2021, the Scottish Government launched a new online platform for teachers to access quality approved materials, resources, and professional learning linked to Scotland’s Curriculum to support the implementation of LGBT Inclusive Education.

The recommendations to be taken forward also include publishing new LGBT inclusive Statutory Guidance on the Conduct of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) education, , and developing specific LGBT Experiences and Outcomes at the next review of Curriculum for Excellence. 

The Scottish Government also recently published non-statutory guidance on Supporting Transgender Pupils in Schools (2021), framed within the legal framework of the Equality Act 2010 and other relevant education and children's legislation.

The Welsh Government are currently in the process of designing and implementing a new Curriculum for Wales. A key, and now mandatory component of the new curriculum, is an overhaul of RSE provision. Proposed RSE provision in Wales will be far more comprehensive and embedded with a whole school approach, the teaching of LGBTQ+ relationships and identities will, as it stands, be a mandatory part of the new RSE curriculum. The proposed RSE Statutory Code and Guidance is due to be published soon.  

Is Stonewall’s guidance on the equality act robust and correct? 

Yes it is.

Our guidance is based on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Equality Act Code of Practice, which was recently reaffirmed in the High Court.

Quality assurance is very important to Stonewall. We regularly review our guidance to ensure that it is of the highest quality and reflects legal developments. Recently, we obtained a thorough independent legal review of Stonewall's guidance to employers and education settings as it relates to the Equality Act, EHRC codes of practice and guidance, Department for Education’s advice for schools in England on the Equality Act. This independent legal review confirmed the quality and accuracy of our guidance.

There have been a small number of reports that suggest Stonewall is misinterpreting the Equality Act’s protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ when we use the phrase ‘gender identity’ in our resources.

The accusation is that, because the Equality Act refers to ‘gender reassignment’ in the legislation, and Stonewall sometimes uses the phrase ‘gender identity’, Stonewall is misinterpreting the law and offering ‘illegal advice’.

When our resources and guidance refer to the wording of the Equality Act we reflect the wording as it appears: ‘gender reassignment’.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission refers to ‘gender identity’ when explaining who is covered by the law and how they are protected (Paragraphs 2.21-2.30 of the Employment Code and 2.17-2.27 of the Services Code). It is normal to use everyday words to describe the law, as everyday language tends to develop along with societal progress, and legal language often remains static. In most contexts, gender identity is an appropriate, inclusive, and well-understood term, which is why we talk about gender identity in our everyday communications.

Finally, it is important to note that Stonewall does not offer legal advice; we offer inclusion support and guidance to support employers.

Is Stonewall’s support for trans inclusion in line with guidance? 

Stonewall proudly provides expertise to schools, colleges and children and young people’s services to support their work with LGBTQ+ children and young people.

Our support, guidance and resources for schools are based on the EHRC technical guidance (Section 5.112) for schools in England and Scotland. These both give the definition of ‘gender reassignment’ as a ‘personal process (rather than a medical process) that involves a person moving away from his or her birth sex to his or her preferred gender and thus expressing that gender in a way that differs from, or is inconsistent with, the physical sex with which he or she was born.’ The technical guidance goes on to explain that ‘this personal process may include undergoing medical procedures or, as is more likely for school pupils, it may simply include choosing to dress in a different way as part of the personal process of change.’

That means that children and young people who are ‘socially transitioning’ will likely fall under the protection of the Act.

Our resources and training are focused on equipping schools, colleges, teachers and other professionals with our expertise and good practice we’ve seen from in children and young people’s settings across the country. This is informed by key pieces of guidance that support schools, including the Scottish Government’s recent guidance. In our Introduction to Supporting LGBT children and young people: A guide for schools (England) (Cymru) we share good practice and key considerations for schools to make as they seek to ensure trans children and young people are safe and supported at school.

This includes sharing our expertise and good practice on supporting trans children and young people to use facilities that match their gender, including toilets, residentials and sport facilities. Our support is focused on equipping practitioners with key information about LGBTQ+ children and young people, along with a wide range of legal and good practice considerations, to help practitioners confidently support inclusion.

How does the EHRC’s new guidance on single-sex spaces affect your guidance for schools and colleges?

On 11 April 2022, the EHRC published guidance for organisations about single-sex services. 

Far from clarifying how the single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act should be used, this non-statutory guidance is likely to create more confusion for schools, workplaces and service providers. 

However, it’s important to note that as this is non-statutory guidance, it doesn’t change the existing law or statutory guidance, which organisations must adhere to. 

The Equality Act 2010 protects trans people from discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment. A person has this characteristic if the person is “proposing to undergo, undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purposes of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex”. 

The Act also protects people from discrimination on the ground of sex. The act says that a reference to someone with this protected characteristic is “a reference to a man or a woman”. There is no reference in the Act to the term ‘biological sex’. 

There is a legal exemption in Schedules 3 and 23 of the Act which means that providers of single-sex services can in some circumstances legally exclude trans people where this is a ‘proportionate means to achieve a legitimate end’.  

This is a highly fact-sensitive standard in a contested area of law, and there is little case law which establishes where an organisation could legitimately use this provision.  

Save where an exemption applies, organisations should not prevent access to services on the basis of someone’s gender reassignment.  

Our guidance for all organisations remains unchanged. You can find guidance for those that work with children and young people in our good practice resource: An introduction to supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people.

Are schools in England allowed to work with Stonewall, in keeping with DFE guidance?

In England, the Department for Education lists Stonewall’s inclusive education guidance as a suggested resource in Annex B of the Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers (page 46). There is no guidance advising against working with Stonewall.

Stonewall is a registered human rights charity and, like all national charities, is required to work in a balanced, non-partisan way to support its goals.

Stonewall operates in compliance with the Charity Commission's CC9 guidance on campaigning and political activity. This guidance helpfully sets out an example of the range of campaigning activity that a human rights charity could be expected to do in support of their purpose of promoting human rights.

It is perfectly normal for charities to campaign for legal protections and policies that improve the lives of the communities they serve.. 

Some activists have been sending template letters to schools suggesting that they should not work with Stonewall. They allege that work supporting schools to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for trans children and young people goes against this non-statutory guidance issued by the Department for Education in September 2020, which states: 

"We are aware that topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support." 

Stonewall’s work does not fall in scope of these concerns.

Our resources focus on providing teachers with knowledge and confidence to ensure all pupils learn about different gender identities and a diverse range of trans role models is part and parcel of learning about equality, diversity and respect. Challenging gender stereotypes is at the heart of our approach, and we agree with the view that nobody should assume a child or young person who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes is LGBTQ+. 

Our work with schools includes support for pupils who are or who might be lesbian, gay, bi or trans, as well as pupils who are questioning their gender identity or sexual/romantic orientation. It also includes pupils with LGBTQ+ family members and loved ones.

Does Stonewall advise not to use the term 'boy' or 'girl'?

No. It is absolutely not true that Stonewall is encouraging schools to avoid using the words ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, as has been asserted in a small number of news outlets.

Being LGBTQ+ inclusive means recognising that there are boys and girls and some people who are non-binary. Our starting point is that we want to see schools and colleges where every child or young person feels safe, seen and heard.

We give guidance and support to staff to help them ensure everyone feels included, and there are several this can be done through inclusive language. For example, a PE teacher instructing their class might use additive language (‘boys, girls and non-binary students, pick your team now’), they could use gender neutral language (‘students, pick your team now!) or it could use you language (‘pick your team now’’).

We do encourage staff to think about the language that is used in school or college and how far it plays into gendered stereotypes e.g. not using phrases such as ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be such a girl’. We also advise to take care to be inclusive of non-binary people; avoiding addressing groups of students using gendered language such as ‘boys and girls’.

Does Stonewall advise against using the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’?

No. It is absolutely not true that Stonewall is encouraging schools to avoid using the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’, as has been asserted in a small number of news outlets.

Being LGBTQ+ inclusive means not assuming people’s pronouns, sharing your own when you introduce yourself if you feel comfortable, and recognising that some people use ‘they’ (for more information please see page 45 of our Introduction to supporting LGBT children and young people).

Does Stonewall encourage schools go above and beyond the legal minimum?

Yes, and proudly. Equalities legislation rightly protects people from discrimination, abuse and harassment, but complying with the law is the minimum rather than the maximum that schools, colleges and youth services can do to support LGBTQ+ people to thrive when they are learning.

Schools, colleges and youth services are constantly driving forward practices to ensure all their learners are supported to perform their best at school or college. No organisation is forced to work with us. They do so because they see the benefits for all their students – not only their LGBTQ+ students.

What do schools and colleges supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people experience?

Most schools who support LGBTQ+ children and young people effectively often hear from their students and their parents how grateful they for creating a positive, supportive learning environment that enable LGBTQ+ learners to thrive.

Some supporters of LGBTQ+ equality have been facing attack for a number of years for taking a trans-inclusive approach to fighting for equality – whether they are charities, workplaces, schools or colleges.

These have come from campaign groups, online activists and sections of the UK media. These attacks are designed to undermine schools’ and colleges’ confidence in supporting LGBTQ+ equality for their learners.

A few groups have launched legal challenges to public sector organisations regarding their work with Stonewall. Many of these cases have already been thrown out by judges as ‘unarguable’.

In the first four months of 2021 there were more than 900 template Freedom of Information requests sent to public sector bodies, including schools and colleges, about their work with Stonewall.

Media organisations are using these Freedom of Information Requests to generate news stories about public sector organisations not renewing their membership. The same news outlets repeat those news stories over and over.

A number of campaign groups are currently encouraging their supporters to send template letters out to schools across the country, and threatening other public sector bodies with legal action.

What can organisations do if they face attacks for their work on LGBTQ+ rights?

Unfortunately we are seeing coordinated attacks on organisations who support LGBTQ+ inclusion whether or not they work with Stonewall. This includes other charities focused on supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people.

These attacks are designed to undermine your confidence in supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion in education.

Start by getting the facts straight. Is there a basis to the complaints or concerns? Use this FAQ as a support and check in with your teams who lead your work on LGBTQ+ inclusion, who know the status of this work and its legal basis.

Make sure your colleagues who are responsible for responding to complaints and concerns have the support they need if they are experiencing hostility, particularly if they are LGBTQ+.

Be proud of your work to support LGBTQ+ inclusion and to take a child centred approach. Opponents of LGBTQ+ rights want you to be nervous and unsure about supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people. Stand tall and be bold. Look out for more actions you can take to celebrate and support LGBTQ+ inclusion at school or college in the months ahead.