Reviewing Stonewall’s latest list of the 100 best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff recently, I was struck by the fact that although there were a few local authorities and universities, there was no academy chain or federation of schools included.
This led me to think on about the experiences of teachers and school leaders who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and the challenges that this throws up for our members, as individuals and as employers.
I’m fully aware that many LGBT people don’t feel able to be open about their sexual orientation at work for fear of discrimination, bullying or harassment, and that the issue is even more difficult in schools where concerns about the response of pupils and parents can deter staff from being open.
We know that a lot of teachers aren’t even open with colleagues, let alone more widely in the school, but Stonewall also has research evidence suggesting that people who can be open about their sexual orientation are more likely to enjoy going to work, feel able to be themselves and form honest relationships with colleagues, and are more confident and, ultimately, more productive. It’s not surprising really that people are going to be happier in work if they can be their authentic self rather than guarded – especially considering how much of their life teachers devote to school! One excellent source of support here is the OutTeacher website.
Our school leader members are in an ideal place to create environments where their staff can feel safe to be open with colleagues and with pupils, although it’s important to remember that the actual decision about who to be open with must always remain with the member of staff. Some teachers are prepared to be open with a few selected colleagues but not with the whole staff team, others are more reticent to be open with pupils. What’s critical is that the individual must retain control of who they share information with based on their own judgement of what impact this will have for them.
When we know that 90 per cent of LGBT students report that they have been bullied because of their sexuality and that many struggle with depression and anxiety as a result, it’s tempting to think that LGBT staff can provide an important role model for pupils and a force for change. Children who see school staff being open and authentic about who they are, can be more likely to believe that they will be accepted and welcomed into the diverse community of the school – but only if they see this as a positive experience, if they see those members of staff being treated with the same respect as others.
But the sad reality is that not every gay or transgender teacher feels able to be out with their colleagues, let alone their students, and asking them to come out for the good of future generations is a big ask. It is asking potentially the most vulnerable of our workforce to put themselves in the firing line.
School leaders therefore have a big role to play in creating a culture in the school that makes it safe for all staff to be open about their sexuality. In part, this is about ensuring that the school has clear policies on tackling any form of discrimination or harassment, whether direct or indirect, of children or staff, and that those policies are cascaded to all staff, implemented and monitored.
But it’s also about modelling appropriate behaviour themselves: not assuming that all your staff (or pupils) are heterosexual (which is unlikely), letting your LGBT staff decide whether and how to be open and, if they are, supporting them in whatever way they need, which includes backing them if parents decide to complain.
School leaders are deeply committed to equality but they are also often sensitive to external and parental opinion about their school. Occasionally too much so. This is an area in which to have the courage to stand by their values.
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Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union. He tweets as @russellhobby