Moving beyond consensus: to what extent does compulsory RSE teaching use dialogue to address the concerns of different minoritized groups?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Education


Relationships and sex education (RSE) became mandatory in English secondary schools from the 2020/21 academic year. The guidance instructs schools to respect nine 'protected characteristics' including religion, sex, race and sexual orientation of groups holding conflicting views on relationships and sex. Similar policies, such as Ontario, Canada's sexualities curriculum, have recently led to backlash drawing on polarising discourses of not only youth sexuality but also the incompatibility of liberal values and those of recent immigrants from the non-Western world. How the aims of the new RSE guidance might be achieved in England's classrooms is as yet unknown.

With a view to understanding the way that identity categories are constituted and discourses about sexuality are unsettled in the classroom, I will observe the teaching of lessons involving RSE. These observations will take place in 5 non-religious state secondary schools to include schools serving largely faith communities alongside schools with mostly non-religious pupils.

In order to understand how teachers approach and experience the responsibility to be attentive to protected characteristics when teaching RSE, I will also take part in semi-structured interviews with teachers. This will allow for a relatively open and in-depth exploration of what teachers consider to be the biggest challenges and opportunities.
Both sexual and religious minorities face inequalities related to discussions of relationships and sex. Those identified as LGBT+, for example, experience erasure in RSE, while religious minorities are often portrayed as intolerant or homophobic. This research interrogates the ways in which identity categories are constituted in the classroom. It questions the scope for an RSE pedagogy which disrupts inequalities faced by both sexual and religious minorities.
This research recognises that the guidance asks a lot of teachers. Already, teachers working in schools serving faith-based communities have taken a range of approaches to RSE and a lack of confidence has led some teachers to close down 'teachable moments' when pupils raise LGBT+ queries themselves. Some teachers attribute this closing down to concerns about censure from religious parents. Others have attempted to 'creep in' LGBT+ inclusive
books due to similar concerns. The extent to which teachers serving faith communities' experiences differ from those of teachers serving mostly non-religious communities is unclear.

Building on the concepts of subjectivation and power, and noting intersecting inequalities across sexual and religious minorities, scholars in the field of education (Youdell, 2011; Vincent, 2020) have looked to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's (2001) concept of agonistic pluralism as a framework for considering the politics of the classroom. They suggest that 'chains of equivalence' can be identified across differently constituted identity categories (Youdell, 2011: 29). As such, different groups are able to maintain their own priorities while collectively troubling the hegemony that disadvantages each of them. This framework can be applied empirically to consider the interactions between sexual and religious minorities.

This research has strong practical significance in the wake of well-publicised protests staged by parents and activists, most of whom identified as Muslims, outside Birmingham primary schools contesting the latter's teaching of LGBT+ lives and relationships. The introduction of statutory guidance across all schools in England further increases the urgency of the issue.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2594642 Studentship ES/P000711/1 30/09/2021 29/09/2025 James Sutton