The last bastion of prejudice

13th April 2012 at 01:00
There is only one openly gay secondary head in Britain, according to campaigners. David Marley asks why and uncovers a culture of fear that is forcing teachers to hide their sexuality

Liam Nolan (pictured) is a remarkable headteacher. As the man in charge of Perry Beeches school in Birmingham, he has transformed the inner-city secondary's fortunes and overseen a record improvement in GCSE results.

But Nolan is remarkable for another - and, in 2012, altogether more disturbing - reason: as far as both gay-rights charity Stonewall and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) are aware, he is the only openly gay secondary headteacher in Britain.

While even some conservatives are championing equality on the issue of gay marriage, it appears that the distance travelled in tackling homophobia as it affects teachers is worryingly short.

The evidence suggests that there are deeply ingrained, systemic problems that are stopping gay teachers being open at school and putting themselves forward for the top jobs.

According to Nolan, who has worked extensively to combat the issue in recent years, homophobia is the last prejudice in the public sector that is yet to be tackled forcefully. More worryingly, both he and other campaigners say that schools are the worst offenders.

Nolan believes the two main factors preventing teachers from coming out are fear of the reaction from pupils, colleagues and parents; and the belief, still prevalent in much of society, that links homosexuality with paedophilia.

While there are heads - both gay and straight - who do not want their private lives to inform what they do at work, for many gay teachers the decision to hide their sexuality is driven by fear of the abuse they may receive should they come out.

"It is a huge concern that there isn't even a small portion of heads who are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), who are out and comfortable being open and honest in the workplace," says Nolan. "It's the last bastion of prejudice - being out and gay, particularly in the public sector, and even more particularly in schools.

"Some teachers think pupils will give them a hard time, but that isn't the case. You can be the most heterosexual headteacher that ever walked the planet, but if you don't have a good relationship with pupils and can't connect with them, they won't like you.

"The more dangerous fear, and bigger concern, is the connection drawn between LGBT and paedophilia. I have never heard anything more ridiculous, but we still live in a society that wants to make that link. There is no doubt that some teachers feel that being out about their sexuality will bring those sorts of accusations."

Nolan, a teacher for more than 20 years, has always been open about his sexuality and says that his experience has been overwhelmingly positive, recalling only a couple of incidents where it has been raised.

There was one occasion when, as head of department at a previous school, a colleague made homophobic and sexual remarks about him at a staff party. Nolan told him in "crystal clear" terms the following day that he had been out of line, and was met with profuse apologies.

Another time, a Christian religious group leafleted the school, which was hosting a visit from gay actor Sir Ian McKellen, saying that both he and Nolan were "perverting children". "It was pretty offensive. All Sodom and Gomorrah and how we were attempting to make children gay," says Nolan.

Apart from these instances, Nolan says that he has never been on the receiving end of prejudice because of his sexuality, but the fact that so few gay headteachers are out shows that a culture of fear pervades the profession.

"People haven't had enough examples of openly gay people running schools successfully," Nolan says. "The result is that we are missing out on potentially amazing headteachers because we have not created a culture where they feel secure in both their leadership and their sexuality side by side."

While Nolan's first-hand experience has been good, with positive reactions from parents, pupils and staff, not all gay teachers have been similarly fortunate. A primary school deputy head, who wishes to remain anonymous, has encountered aggressive homophobia among parents who do not want any mention of same-sex relationships at school.

The teacher, who is out to staff, does not feel he can be open about his sexuality with pupils or parents for fear of the reaction. The majority of his pupils are Muslims, with many of the parents hostile to homosexuality, he says.

"I don't believe that all Muslims are homophobic, but in my school, whoever has the loudest voice gets heard, and there is a group of parents with a very loud voice on this issue. They are frightened about what they perceive a gay man to be and the gay agenda to be."

The deputy head, who came out to pupils and parents at his previous school after entering a civil partnership, had intended to be out at his current school as well, but quickly realised that it would be a problem.

"The fear of a backlash from parents is genuine and it saps your confidence," he says. "It's particularly bad now that I'm a deputy head because I can't afford to cause ructions that might result in children leaving the school.

"It has left me feeling very isolated and vulnerable. As a gay man, I don't feel it's my job to be fighting this alone, but I'm the only one raising it as an issue at school. You wouldn't expect only black or ethnic minority teachers to tackle racism.

"Being out at my last school was incredibly freeing and being closeted now is extremely frustrating. Headteachers need to be fearless on the issue."

A 'coming out' assembly

Shaun Dellenty, deputy head of Alfred Salter Primary School in Southwark, London, has also had mixed experiences during his career, with senior teachers at one of his first schools openly using homophobic language to describe pupils. "They'd say, 'Did you see such-and-such in PE? He's just a big poof.' Or some other kid, 'He's going to be a queer.' They were as bold as brass," he says.

"After a while, I did tell some colleagues that I was gay, but I was fairly closeted. I thought that if I had been more open, it would have been used against me."

Not surprisingly, this made Dellenty cautious in being open about his sexuality when he changed schools, including when he moved to his current one 11 years ago. But having come out after six months at Alfred Salter - after he was "pursued" by a female colleague at a party - he is now leading work to tackle homophobic prejudice among pupils and staff.

Just two years ago, Dellenty did something that he had always thought he would resist for fear of it being "cheesy", and held a "coming out" assembly. A number of children were already aware that he was gay, but he did it to provide a positive role model to all of them. "I thought about what would have made a difference when I was at primary school," Dellenty says. "I thought about whether I had had any gay people to look up to. I always knew I was different, I knew by the age of 4. But when I saw people like John Inman and Larry Grayson on television, I thought, 'I'm not like that, and if I am like that I hate myself.'

"Not having people to aspire to was difficult, so I thought I was cheating kids who are questioning themselves. It's a great unsaid in primary schools because people don't like to think about it. People think children are too young to know, but I'm sorry, some aren't."

The assembly came after Dellenty gave questionnaires to pupils and staff to discover the level of prejudice that people encountered and the kind of language they found acceptable.

Three-quarters of pupils said that they heard the word "gay" used on a daily basis, and 65 per cent of staff - including all support and maintenance staff - did not think that using "gay" as a pejorative term was homophobic.

With that information in hand - and having recognised that children in trouble for using the word gay were always sent to him to deal with - Dellenty organised a full day of staff training to deal with the issue.

"We got through all the misconceptions; all the prejudices were spewed out, and there were some heated discussions," he says. "If you drill down with staff about what's really being thought, it's all there. And that's in what I think is a really cohesive school."

Tackling deep-seated homophobia

Dellenty says that uncovering the views of his colleagues showed how much work needs to be done in schools to tackle underlying homophobic attitudes even among people who would not recognise themselves as prejudiced. At his school, this has been done in conjunction with tackling homophobic bullying among children - an approach that he believes is integral to tackling prejudice among teachers.

The other effective tactic is to link homophobia to racism, he says. "That is the single most powerful way to get the message across. Replace the word gay with black - it's the easiest way for pupils and staff to deal with it.

"Schools are pretty hot on dealing with racism, but I don't think most heads see homophobia as important. I became quite aware that I was banging on about it a lot, but the will to tackle homophobia is lagging behind. I don't want special treatment for gay teachers, but I do want equal treatment."

Dellenty is clear that none of the work he has done would have been possible without the support of his headteacher, Stuart Hayter. "He has been told by two other heads that they don't know how he copes with it and that they wouldn't have it in their schools," Dellenty says. "One faith school head said that he wouldn't employ an openly gay teacher."

In 2009, Stonewall commissioned YouGov to poll more than 2,000 teachers about the extent of homophobic bullying in schools. Nine in 10 secondary teachers and more than two in five primary teachers said children were the victims of homophobic abuse in their schools, regardless of their sexual orientation. Insults including "poof", "dyke", "queer" and "faggot" were common, they reported (see box, page 24).

Endemic homophobia among pupils contributes significantly to a culture that means that teachers can feel threatened about coming out, according to the charity's senior education officer Chris Gibbons.

Another key factor, says Gibbons, is the controversy surrounding the infamous section 28 - a clause of the Local Government Act 1988 that banned the promotion of homosexuality by councils and schools. It meant schools could not discuss homosexuality as a "normal family relationship".

Although no one was ever prosecuted under the law, which was repealed in 2003, its impact is still being felt in schools, not least because many current teachers started their careers while it was still in force, says Gibbons. Apologies from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron - who described section 28 as "offensive" in 2009 - have not ended its influence.

"A lot of the reluctance to be out at school is a result of the dangerous stigma of section 28," says Gibbons. "It left schools in a situation where they did not know what they could talk about. Staff thought they could lose their jobs if they challenged homophobic behaviour or came out as gay. It may have gone, but there is still a lot of nervousness."

The hangover from section 28 means that teaching is "definitely lagging behind" other careers in both the private and public sectors in promoting equality, according to Gibbons. "In other industries we have executives and people of all levels who are openly gay, but schools are struggling with this."

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary and himself openly gay, agrees that there is an issue around homophobia in schools that is stopping teachers coming out. "While it (homophobia) is in decline, there are other professions where it is easier to be open about your sexuality," he told TES. "While everyone has a right to a private life, I want to work with teachers and headteachers to understand what the barriers are to coming out. No one should feel intimidated or uneasy about their sexuality in the workplace."

Gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says some teachers fear that their sexuality will be used against them, with parents or other members of staff questioning their suitability to work with children. "To protect themselves, many heads take the decision to remain in the closet," Tatchell says. "There have also been cases of teachers facing teasing, ridicule and abuse from pupils, including false allegations of sexual abuse.

"Increasing numbers of schools are tackling homophobic bullying of pupils, but there's very little movement on combating homophobia as it affects teachers."

Looking at other areas of public life, such as politics (Chris Smith became the first openly gay British MP in 1984), shows that one or two trailblazers will make it easier for others to follow in their wake, Tatchell says. "Once a few headteachers come out, it will embolden others to follow. The fear of coming out is much worse than the reality."

According to both Nolan and Dellenty, the experience of coming out at school has actually improved their ability to do their jobs, rather than damaged it. Nolan puts significant store in his decision to be open about his sexuality in creating the kind of honest atmosphere needed to turn Perry Beeches around. It meant he was able to have conversations with people on a different level, rather than as a distant head who "doesn't let anyone into his hidden world".

"I'm successful as a head and Perry Beeches is successful as a school and one of the reasons is that I'm an out gay man," Nolan says.

"One of the things I was determined about from Day 1 was that relationships would be open, honest and true. If I needed to change what was happening at the school, they had to believe that I was authentic, and that the leadership they were presented with was based on truth."

Similarly, Dellenty describes the reaction of parents, staff and pupils as one of increased "warmth" and respect. People have confided in him in a way that did not happen before because they see him as someone they can trust.

There is no doubt in either of their minds, however, that the increased public scrutiny that comes with headship puts off a significant number of gay teachers from going for promotion. All the fears that teachers already harbour - about reprisals, accusations, discrimination - are magnified when stepping up from a teaching role to a position where your name is on the sign at the school gate.

"You worry that if things were to go wrong then 'openly gay' becomes part of the tag that's attached to you," says Dellenty. "I'm happy to take that chance because I want it to be seen that openly gay people can lead schools."

According to Nolan, it is difficult for teachers to fully appreciate how much one becomes "public property" when taking on a headship and how people feel comfortable passing comment on things unrelated to the job of leading a school.

It is also wrong to assume that straight headteachers do not promote their heterosexuality and use it to define themselves, he says. "A huge proportion of heads are very clear about being straight and having a straight lifestyle with partners and children.

"But many gay teachers closet themselves because they don't want the scrutiny. What I want to say is don't closet. Why closet? This is something that can be celebrated and add so much to your repertoire as a leader."

Work is beginning to take place to tackle the problem, with the NCSL conducting workshops on the issue of homophobia for the first time at a major conference this summer. It has also worked closely with Stonewall to produce a guide on effective school leadership and the need to tackle homophobic bullying.

Alice Gregson, NCSL equality and diversity manager, says that one of the problems is a lack of strong data on the numbers of gay teachers. Although information on ethnicity and gender is collected in the school census each year, similar information relating to sexuality is not gathered.

While both the NCSL and Stonewall accept that there may be more openly gay leaders than they are aware of, as it stands Nolan remains the only secondary head alongside a "few" primary headteachers.

"We don't want to put any pressure on anyone to come out," says Gregson. "Obviously, it is a personal choice. But we want to create the right culture so people feel they can be themselves."

Stonewall is also working with initial teacher training providers to explicitly address the issue of homophobic bullying - as it affects both pupils and teachers - with new educators before they start their careers.

Last year, schools minister Lord Hill told the House of Lords that teachers should be trained to spot and deal with homophobic bullying and that guidance had been updated to make clear it should not be tolerated.

Nolan believes that the public debate has now reached a point where more teachers and school leaders will begin to feel comfortable about coming out. "I don't want to be a unique figure in being a gay headteacher," he says. "I think we are on the brink of things happening. I would encourage those thinking of coming out not to worry about it so much.

"Don't give people a reason not to trust you. Embrace it, make it part of what makes your leadership style and make it part of what makes your school successful. It's just a case of being open and honest."


90% of secondary school teachers and 44 per cent of primary teachers say children experience homophobic bullying

95% of secondary teachers and 75 per cent of primary teachers hear the phrases "you're so gay" or "that's so gay" in their schools

90% of school staff have never had specific training to deal with homophobic bullying

50% of secondary teachers who are aware of homophobic bullying say the vast majority of incidents go unreported

Secondary teachers say homophobic bullying is the second most frequent form of abuse after bullying about weight

Source: The Teachers' Report: Homophobic Bullying in Britain's Schools, conducted by YouGov for Stonewall, 2009


Ofsted earlier this year published a guide on how to tackle homophobic bullying at school. It focused on the experiences of Stoke Newington School in London, which it praised for combating anti-gay language and attitudes.

One of the driving forces behind the school's campaign has been music teacher Elly Barnes (pictured), who was in first place on the Independent on Sunday's Pink List last year.

Barnes has pioneered work on LGBT history month and trains teachers on making their schools LGBT friendly.

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