'Equality for LGBT staff and pupils must not be a ‘nice to do if you have time’ issue for schools'

28th June 2017 at 16:06
Schools desperately need to take a zero tolerance approach towards homophobic and transphobic bullying, writes one heads' leader

I was shocked to read the latest research from Stonewall, the organisation that campaigns for better rights for LGBT people, which says that nearly half of all students still face homophobic bullying.

The figure is falling, so we are making progress. But it’s still way too high.

Pupils who feel included, safe and happy will engage with learning and emerge as rounded and mentally healthy individuals. Staff who feel included, safe and happy will feel able to be authentic about their own identity.

It’s clear that school leaders have a key role to play. As a head of a primary school, I set the culture of my school for teachers and for students. So when I looked at some of the data from Stonewall’s 2014 teacher’s report into homophobic bullying in schools, I was pretty appalled.

Only 32 per cent of primary school teachers and 42 per cent of secondary school teachers agree that the headteacher demonstrates clear leadership when it comes to tackling homophobic bullying.

This has to change. It’s 2017, for goodness sake.

Fair and equal

School leaders do have a lot on our plates: funding is in crisis, the government is changing the curriculum and assessment framework on a whim and there are dramatic cuts in specialist health and social care services to support our pupils.

But this is not an excuse for a lack of action on equality. Equality is not a "nice to do if you have time" issue.

We have to make time for this as we do discrimination on the grounds of race or any other characteristic. It’s not acceptable for school leaders to allow a parent to say that they don’t want a particular teacher working with their child.

It’s not acceptable for school leaders to allow situations where staff feel like they are looking over their shoulder. It’s not acceptable for school leaders to put racial discrimination in the "hard to do" box. And so the same approach has to be taken to homophobia and transphobia, too.

Campaigners like Shaun Dellenty have shown, through their bravery, what is possible. And I pay tribute to them. NAHT Members have faced homophobic abuse themselves. And I pay tribute to them, too. School leaders can be the victims of abuse, but they should always be champions.

We have to create environments that have zero tolerance of homophobic and transphobic bullying – to pupils and staff. We have to create a culture where staff can be open about their identity or gender – or not be, if that is their choice.

I recall a colleague who confessed to being completely exhausted by the sheer number of times she had to come out. You don’t come out once, she said. You have to make the choice whether to come out or not every single time you meet someone new.

If you’re lucky, your new colleague won’t bat an eyelid. But even if their reaction is tolerant, the adrenaline required to be open can still be thumping through your system.

Confronting intolerance

It’s at moments like these that our attitudes to our rights and responsibilities become apparent. And as school leaders, we should never forget how hard these conversations can be.

NAHT has been campaigning for many years for relationships and sex education to become a mandatory part of the curriculum, to provide a framework for some of this work regardless of the age of the pupils. We’re delighted that our campaigning has been successful with the inclusion of this in this year’s Children and Social Work Bill.

We will be working directly with the DfE to develop guidance and support for schools on how to implement this across all age groups and in all types of schools, including faith schools like my own. 

A good definition of school leadership that I heard recently is that headteachers should not cause trouble, they should run towards it. We should embody the change that we want to see. And everyone who works for us and with us should know that we are on their side.

Anne Lyons is the president of the NAHT. She tweets at @Anne_M_Lyons.

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