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Why school-based sex education isn’t inclusive enough

Updated Thursday, 20 April 2023
Only a small minority of LGBT young people learn about sexual health in the classroom, which could put them at risk. 

The provision and content of sex education in schools remains a widely debated and contentious subject. Increasingly, attention is being drawn to the ‘invisibility’ of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) health issues and the need for more inclusive sex education in schools in Great Britain. So what is the evidence behind these calls?

School children Only 13% of pupils have learnt about healthy same-sex relationships at school (Stonewall: 2017)

What is the evidence?

A range of evidence consistently highlights a deficiency in the provision of LGBT-related information in school-based sex education. For instance, The 2017 Stonewall School report, an online survey of over 3,700 young LGBT in secondary schools and colleges across Britain reported that only a minority of LGBT young people had learned about sexual health and relationships specific to same-sex relationships at school or college. 

The percentage of LGBT pupils who report being taught about specific sexual health and relationship topics in school or college The percentage of LGBT pupils who report being taught about specific sexual health and relationship topics in school or college


Academic Opinion

Sexual education isn't inclusive enough

Philippa Waterhouse:

Adolescence is a critical period of social biological and psychological changes, during which individuals often start exploring their sexuality and engaging in sexual behaviour. This makes the provision of complete and accurate information during this life stage important. Over the past two decades there have been changes on how young people receive information about sex, with there being a marked increase in young people reporting lessons at school as their main source of information. Whilst there's been much research about sources of information for young people, there's been relatively less consideration about how sources of information about sex may differ according to sexual orientation. This is what recent research by myself and my colleague Sarah Burke who set out to do. We had two main aims the first was to consider where the main sources of information about sex differed between young women who have sex with women, and young women who have sex exclusively with men. We secondly wanted to look at how well these sources met young women's information or needs. We did this by drawing on information from over 1,600 young women under the age of 26 from the third national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. This is a nationally representative data set of people in Great Britain. So what did we find? We found that young women who have sex with women are less likely to report lessons at school as their main source of information about sex, instead they are more likely to report a category labelled as other which consisted mainly of first girlfriend, first boyfriend, or first sexual partner. We also found that 87% of young women who have sex with women reported that when they first felt ready for a sexual experience they wish they had known more information about sex. Schoolbased sexual education is an important source for young people today, however there's increasing attention being drawn to the invisibility of same-sex relationships in there. Sexual education needs to be more inclusive and provide information on a diversity of relationship and family forms and provide information on risk and protection that goes beyond a focus on opposite-sex sexual behaviour.

-End of opinion piece-

Why does it matter?

The lack of relevant sex education in schools for LGBT youth means that these young people must rely on other sources of information, such as the internet or partners, for this, which can have implications for longer-term sexual health and wellbeing. In our analysis of nationally representative data, we found that young (aged 16-25 years) British women who have sex with women (WSW) were less likely to report lessons at school as their main source of information about sex when growing up compared to women who have sex exclusively with men (WSEM). Instead, WSW were more likely to report a category defined as ‘other’, which mainly compromised of their first sexual partner, as their main source of information about sex.

In our research young women reported they wanted to know more about sex, but levels were higher for WSW (87% compared to 71% for WSEM). Indeed, a body of research conducted with young people highlights that sex education to date heavily focuses on ‘safe sex’ in terms of heterosexual intercourse.  Sex education needs to adopt a more positive approach to sex for all women that includes topics relating to psychosexual aspects of sex, such as sexual pleasure, intimacy, and the emotional parts of relationships for LGBT and heterosexual young people.

Coloured umbrella The government has introduced measures to ensure all schools provide age-appropriate sex education

In Great Britain, Section 28 of the 1998 Local Government Act prevented the teaching in schools of ‘homosexuality as an acceptable family form’. This section was repealed in Scotland in 2000, and in the rest of Great Britain in 2003. Whilst sex education guidance for schools was updated in 2010 and 2014 in Wales and Scotland respectively, guidance for schools in England has not been updated since 2000 when Section 28 was still in force. In 2017, the government made the announcement that it would make age-appropriate relationship and sex education compulsory in all secondary schools in England by 2019 and that it would review and revise the content of this curriculum to be more relevant to ‘today’s society’. Stonewall has welcomed the recent announcements surrounding sex education as a ‘vital opportunity’ to ensure that guidance for schools is LGBT-inclusive and that they teach about issues of relevance to LGBT young people.  

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