Alex Baird portrait

Written by Alex Baird


Before moving to the Higher Educator sector seven years ago, I worked in various schools for over twelve years, latterly as Director of Sport. At the University of Bedfordshire I am a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Physical Education, an EDI Lead, and the Vice Chair of the LGBTQ+ Alliance staff network. I have just finished an EdD at UCL and the research I write about here constituted my EdD thesis.

My research took place in a primary school in Greater London during the summer term of 2021, just as Relationships and Health Education (including the new LGBT content) had become mandatory. At this time, Covid-19 restrictions were lessening though some protocols were still in place and the effect of lockdowns on both pupils and staff was evident. The school has no religious affiliation but the majority of pupils are Muslim, with a high proportion of English as an additional language (EAL) learners and higher than (the national) average of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM). The research was designed to appreciate how teachers feel positioned and work alongside them to create and teach an inclusive and effective RSE curriculum. Participants included five (non-LGBT identifying) females from the school who held a range of positions, roles, and experience but had all previously taught RSE and were currently teaching in Key Stage 2. Participants were asked to reflect upon RSE and the school culture via semi-structured online interviews. RSE lessons and other subject lessons were observed. Teachers’ reflections of lessons were gathered after observation through an informal discussion. 

In interviews teachers expressed a commitment to a rights-based approach in RSE and highlighted the value lessons offered to facilitate dialogue with pupils. Lesson observations revealed a cautious approach to the age at which certain topics (e.g. puberty and conception) were covered and when these topics were covered, dialogue did not deviate from the purchased curriculum PowerPoint slides. The culture and routines of RSE lessons closely resembled other subject lessons observed, that is pupils engaged and valuing the subject, generally sitting in their allocated class seats but the authority and attention remaining on the teacher at the front of the class. Teachers wanted to offer fixed, clear and definitive truths, reinforcing good behaviour and deeming some pupils’ questions as inappropriate. Teachers remained uncertain about what personal opinions they could express whilst still adhering to professional conduct. Lessons which were only 45 minutes in length, shorter than Mathematics and English lessons observed, left teachers often hurrying the pace to try to cover the content. Lesson observations highlighted that gender norms are still being powerfully reinforced including the use of gender stereotypes in scenarios and segregated sex education lessons which send these messages overtly and covertly to pupils.  

In light of the current heated and polarising debates surrounding LGBT lives in the UK, I would like to stress my call to rethink how RSE is taught should not be taken to mean it should not be taught. A fuller range of pedagogical approaches that include a critical and postmodern orientation are required to recognise pupils’ agency, their pre-existing knowledge, their emotions, and to the likely presence of pupils in LGBT families and pupils who are or may come to identify as LGBT. Effective RSE remains dependent upon schools providing sufficient training for staff, listening to pupils, and communicating effectively with all parents/carers to address misconceptions or issues. Actualising and normalising LGBT themes needs to go beyond merely a bullying discourse to seek to critique broader school culture and practices.