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LGBT+ Inclusivity – Is it Safe for Teachers to Come Out in Schools Yet?

True LGBT+ inclusivity means more than a few rainbow posters along school corridors, argues Elly Barnes – and it starts with a serious commitment to training...

  • LGBT+ Inclusivity – Is it Safe for Teachers to Come Out in Schools Yet?

Homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK 51 years ago – yet sadly, regardless of all the achievements in legislation thus far, there are still teachers who are fearful of being themselves and who feel unsupported by leadership teams, and who therefore will not advocate for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in their classrooms.

Very recently in a training session I discovered none of the queer teachers present were out in their school because ‘the climate’, they explained, was not conducive to achieving equality.

On another occasion, a teacher told me they were forced to leave their last four teaching posts due to homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

How can this be, when government and school policies explicitly embrace diversity?

Most of those who participate in our research say that they feel a teacher’s ability to safely come out at school can affect learners in a positive way.

One young person wrote a letter to a teacher about this, explaining, “I don’t think I can list all the things I could thank you for, so I’m just going to say an overall thanks. I also want you to know that thanks to you, I found the courage to come out as genderfluid/non-binary.”

If a school’s teachers aren’t out, then somewhere in the school something is wrong. As one of our 15-year-old interviewees told us, “If teachers don’t feel safe to be themselves, then how can we?”

Thankfully, positive changes have occurred since I was growing up – but my team and I at Educate & Celebrate are still faced with negative attitudes, potentially influenced by the current political climate, bigotry, the excuse of ‘tradition’ and the perceived reality of the ‘heteronormative’ model.

Everyday thinking

Reassuringly, though, there is a much-increased visibility of queerness that is beginning to be embraced by schools and communities; with good reason too, as we can assume around 25% of the population potentially identify as LGBT+ (the famous sexualities statistician Kinsey established a figure of 10% in relation to gay men in 1948, but of course it is probably more as he was not looking at women, bi or trans people).

Plus, there have been several studies since, including a YouGov poll in 2015 in which 49% of young people aged between 18-24 said they did not identify as heterosexual.

In school terms, this could be up to five students in every class we teach. Therefore, representation is paramount – and for this to happen, training is key.

I am not advocating that every teacher creates new lesson plans or schemes of work. Instead, it’s important to understand that LGBT+ inclusivity is much more about ‘usualising’ – in other words, developing strategies that make LGBT+ inclusivity part of everyday life; part of your existing lessons and part of the fabric of the school.

Such strategies are not yet prerequisites of Qualified Teacher Status, however, they are judged by Ofsted and asked of us in school and government policies.

Currently then, it is left to the most forward-thinking schools, SCITTs and universities to ensure this essential training happens so that trainees and experienced teachers alike are prepared with the knowledge to be inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity in their teaching at all key stages and in all subject areas.

Transformative training

For example, research carried out in June 2016 by Dr Anna Carlile at Goldsmiths, University of London Department of Educational Studies, found that targeted LGBT+ inclusivity training in one secondary academy in the Midlands was successful in challenging HBT bullying, greatly increasing confidence amongst teaching staff and resulting in a much improved LGBT+ inclusivity rating for both staff and students.

Moreover, its far reaching effects included improved Ofsted findings, more effective teaching, and positive impacts across the wider remit of equalities and community cohesion – both in the school, and in the families and communities around it.

Staff also felt empowered to share their work across networks of local schools as a sustainable model not just for dealing with HBT bullying but as an effective approach to wider school improvement. They would like to help with leading other schools in developing their equalities work.

For this kind of positive development to spread more widely, however, a coherent approach is required. If we can ensure the addition of LGBT+ criteria to achieve QTS, provide compulsory LGBT+ training for practising and trainee teachers, add value to the curriculum through intersectional teaching pedagogies, encourage and nurture pupil voice, and establish a centrally funded distribution of inclusive and accessible resources – then we will have the beginnings of a truly cohesive education system with people and social justice at its core; and one in which staff and students alike will all feel able to come out as their authentic selves.


Inclusivity in action: 5 areas where you could be the change

  • Training
    Ensure annual equalities training with a specific emphasis on gender identity and sexual orientation is on your school calendar. Invite all stakeholders including staff, support staff, leadership teams and governors
  • Policy
    Read and revise all school policies ensuring they adhere to the Equality Act 2010. Pay particular attention to your Anti-Bullying, Equal Opportunities, Uniform (gender-neutral), Inclusion and Healthy Relationships Education (RSE) policies.
  • Curriculum
    Audit your curriculum to find areas of existing good practice. Develop this good practice in all subject areas at all key stages using gender-neutral language, avoiding heteronormativity and adding LGBT+ inclusive books for your library. Once you start noticing the discrepancy between your curriculum and real life you won’t be able to stop!
  • Environment
    Increase visibility by paying attention to key areas e.g. reception greeting, hallway displays, an equality and diversity board for signposting to services, main hall and subject specific areas.
  • Community
    Engage the whole school community in events. For example, LGBT History Month, Anti-Bullying Week or IDAHOBIT- both in and out of school. Empower students to make positive change by forming a PRIDE Youth Network.

Dr Elly Barnes MBE (@elly_barnes) is the founder and chief executive of the charity Educate & Celebrate (educateandcelebrate.org).

Her book, How to Transform your School into an LGBT+ Friendly Place: A Practical Guide for Nursery, Primary and Secondary Teachers, written in partnership with Dr Anna Carlile (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), is available now.

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