Pupils taking part in a ‘gay awareness’ class. All state schools will teach children about relationships, including LGBT issues, from September 2020.

Some faith communities have rejected draft guidance for independent schools

More than 50 faith leaders, education experts and rights advocates have said young LGBT people would be at increased risk of bullying in schools if the government waters down draft guidance in response to pressure.

The Department for Education has issued draft advice to independent schools, saying secondary school children should know about “protected characteristics” under the 2010 Equality Act, which include gender reassignment and sexual orientation. Primary school children should be “aware of the ways in which people can be different and be respectful of those differences”.

But the draft guidance has been rejected by some faith communities, including ultra-Orthodox Jews who have said members of their community may leave the country rather than allow their children to be taught about “alternative lifestyles”. They say basic religious freedoms are under threat.

The argument over whether schools should teach children about LGBT issues arose in a Birmingham state school last month when 400 predominantly Muslim parents signed a petition calling for the topic to be dropped from the curriculum.

In November a Christian parent threatened legal action against her child’s state primary school in south London, claiming it had forced pupils to take part in a “gay pride parade”.

Last July the DfE said all state schools would teach children about relationships and health education, including LGBT issues, from September 2020.

Its draft guidance to independent schools is non-statutory but Ofsted inspectors and the DfE will take it into account when assessing schools or taking action. The advice is expected to be formally issued later this year.

Objections have been raised by independent schools with a conservative religious character and by parents citing religious freedom. The letter supporting the new guidance expresses concern that the DfE plans to water down its advice.

Any dilution would pose “a significant safeguarding risk to LGBT young people, who are still subject to significant levels of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying,” the letter says.

“Challenging LGBT discrimination in school lessons and in everyday school life is fundamental to fostering equality at school and in wider society,” it says. “Being LGBT and having a religion are not mutually exclusive. LGBT people are members of all communities, across religions and non-religious worldviews.”

Among the signatories are the Rev Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans; Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to Reform Judaism; Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters; Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK; and Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries of the National Education Union.

Copson said: “There is widespread support for LGBT inclusion in schools and it is imperative that LGBT lessons in independent schools are not diluted out of fear that it could offend some religious groups.

“Providing an inclusive education for all pupils, including LGBT students, so that they can learn and develop in freedom must be the priority for schools and we urge the department against the watering down of its draft proposals.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want all children to grow up to become happy, healthy and safe, which is why we are making relationships education compulsory for all primary schools as well as relationships and sex education compulsory for all secondary schools.

“The draft guidance is clear that teaching should look at healthy relationships and that all pupils learn about equality. The draft guidance is also clear that relationships and sex education should be relevant to all pupils, whatever their developing sexuality or identity, in an age-appropriate way.”