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We must break down the barriers to LGBTI-inclusive education

The Scottish government’s commitment to LGBT-inclusive education is welcome – but schools still have a lot of work to do, writes Emma Seith

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The note was left on Paul Murray’s seat in maths. “To Paul, we hate you. Puff.” It was far from being anonymous; it was, in fact, signed. The perpetrators clearly expected there would be no consequences, explains Murray, who is now a teacher himself.

But then Murray was at school in the 1990s and the incident, therefore, predated the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This forbade schools from promoting “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

Now Dr Murray – a science and chemistry teacher at Kirkcaldy High in Fife who also runs the school’s LGBT+ group – uses that note in training sessions that members of the LGBT+ group run with teachers. It is one of a number of scenarios used, but the big reveal at the end is that this one involved the colleague standing in front of them.

We might comfort ourselves with the thought that this occurred decades ago, but Dr Murray is clear – in our feature about the move by the Scottish government to ensure that LGBTI-inclusive education is explicitly taught across the curriculum (pages 12-17) – that homosexuality remains “the last bastion of acceptable prejudice”.

'The last bastion of acceptable prejudice'

Section 28 was repealed in 2000, but this kind of thinking still lives on in the heads of some teachers.

This, of course, will be a barrier to implementing the new government guidance. So how will the message that homosexuality is no longer a taboo subject be fed down to all classroom teachers, and what support will they be offered to deliver on this new expectation?

If organisations such as the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign, which fought so hard for these changes, are to have a role, they are going to need funding.

Jordan Daly, co-founder of TIE, says that since education secretary John Swinney announced that it was his intention that the curriculum in school should be “as diverse as the young people”, the organisation’s inbox has begun to strain under the weight of emails from schools looking for help to make that a reality.

This is undoubtedly a good sign, and one of the recommendations of the government’s LGBTI working group is that a basic new LGBTI inclusion training course should be funded for teachers and made available nationally by 2020. That recommendation, along with 30-plus others, has been accepted by the SNP.

But it will be school senior managers who give staff the time and space to take part. The pupils at Kirkcaldy High are clear that there would be no LGBT+ group if it were not for the vocal and visible support of the school’s leaders, including the headteacher, Derek Allan. It was this willingness to embrace diversity from the top that made Murray feel able to be open with pupils about his bisexuality.

However, even in a school like this – where the LGBT+ group is relatively well established, having been formed back in 2015 – there is no other openly gay teacher. Should that bother us? I think it probably should, even though Murray makes the point that many teachers – irrespective of their sexuality – will choose to keep their private lives out of the classroom.

It should bother us because you can see how liberating it is for the pupils to have a role model like Murray. And it’s not just about sexuality. It’s about learning to be comfortable in your own skin and to embrace the things that make you “quirky” or “weird”.

At present, however, it still feels as though coming out in school, be it by pupil or teacher, is a brave and unusual thing to do. Perhaps we will know that the government’s LGBTI-inclusive education policy has succeeded when it is just par for the course.

Happy new year.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. @Emma_Seith