For many around the world June is now firmly established as ‘Pride Month,’ but what happens in learning communties when the rainbow flags get folded away? Does an inclusive ethos endure, or is a ‘diversity box’ merely ticked?
In 2009 whilst working as a London primary school leader, pupil survey data revealed we had a bullying issue relating to LGBT+ identities: 75% of pupils experienced homophobic bullying daily (whether or not they were LGBT+) and 98% reporting using and hearing the word ‘gay’ to mean something rubbish or crappy.
With a duty of care for all, not just some of our children, staff, parents and carers I could not let this go unchecked. As a survivor of homophobia, I know the potentially life-long impact that prejudice and bullying has upon mental health, attendance and attainment-potentially leading (as it nearly did in my case) to suicide.
There was, back in 2009, little in terms of training on compassionate LGBT+ inclusion for primary staff. Stonewall and similar training providers informed me they were cautious of undertaking work in primary schools, due to negative reactions from parents and press. But our school had a proven homophobic bulllying problem; had this data been about race or disability, there would have been no hesitation from us in tackling it as a leadership team. The toxic myth (a hangover from Section 28) prevailed (and in many ways still does) that even by talking in schools about the fact that LGBT+ people exist and have histories and lives, we somehow ‘promote’ being LGBT+.
Which is utter rubbish, but haters are gonna hate, unless of course they are taught not to.
Some staff in my school couldn’t actually say the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ without smirking, laughing or going red. They (and I) were acutely aware of the possibility that LGBT+ incusion work might result in press/parent accusations that we were ‘sexualising’ young people, purely by defining terms such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ in an age-appropriate manner or by giving young people permission to use these words factually and respectfully, or by exploring the diverse range of 21st century family life.
As a child I learned about heterosexual and cisgender lives, histories and experiences in every aspect of school life (although it was never labelled as such) it certainly wasn’t about sex.
My lived experience and research shows that LGBT+ people often know exactly who we are at primary school sometimes even in infants; this might be unpalatable for some, but it is a truth of our lived experience, like it or not.
It is also a fact that since starting working in education in 1996, in nearly all the schools I have worked, there have been LGBT+ young people, staff or parents/carers. If as a school leader I choose to ignore these individuals and their needs, then my teaching degree isn’t worth the paper it is written on; I may as well go and work in shop, because I would be failing in my core duty as a compassionate school principal and manager.
Specific problems require targeted solutions and so I wrote a compassion based LGBT+ inclusion training programme ‘Inclusion For All.’ This whole-school training was informed by my lived experiences as a bullied gay youth, class teacher school leader and my strategic role as a part-time improving schools’ consultant. It would be delivered to all stakeholders, as a non-negotiable, for we all needed it.
Initially, I toyed with using Black History/LGBT History Month model, imagining what might happen if schools dedicated one week of the year to exploring LGBT+ identities to increase visibility and awareness. Yet if I was a person of colour, I know I would want embedded and authentic representation every single day throughout all aspects of school life; this was no different.
However, as a school leader with extensive experience of introducing whole-school and borough-wide initiatives, the Black History Month model felt too compartmentalised. We learn about heterosexual and cisgender lives, histories and experiences in every aspect of school life, thus if we are striving for true equality; the same should be said of LGBT+ lives, histories and experiences. We often teach about the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 in silos; the more intersectionality I could weave into my approach the deeper the impact might be.
I fully appreciate that ‘minority-themed’ weeks/months raise visibility, but the core aim of Inclusion For All would be to effect sustainable whole-school organisational change at a strategic level, resulting in a compassionately inclusive ethos for all stakeholders that would permeate every aspect of school life, before hopefully reaching out into the community beyond the school gates, potentially influencing change within the wider education system, which ultimately (and to my utmost surprise) it would.
I first delivered Inclusion For All in my own school in January 2010; at its core was a recognition that every professional, in every school, arrived at LGBT+ with their own history in terms of what they think, feel, believe and have been told about what LGBT+ human beings are, and (perhaps more importantly) what they are not. Until we as a school had created a safe, compassionate and non-judgemental space in which we could all explore our own anxieties, misconceptions and prejudices about natural human diversity of all kinds, any specifically LGBT+-related teaching and learning would be less effective and more likely to be shunned by busy teachers.
Cultural and organisational change begins with us, as individuals. Before we decolonise the curriculum, we must first decolonise ourselves; it is no different when teaching and learning about LGBT+ identities and the intersections between them, faith, race and disability.
My six tier process of personal, cultural and organisational change proved highly effective and a tangible sense of empowerment, authenticity and relief swept through our school as we got on with enriching our school community with visible LGBT+ and other diverse role models, age appropriate representation in books, lessons and resources from nursery to Year 6. We celebrated varied families and relationships, studied philosophy and Human Rights, introduced Mindfulness and learned about the negative impact of prejudice-related bullying of all kinds, whilst agreeing a respectful use for the word ‘gay’ and empowering young people to take shared ownership of our journey.
At management level we ensured aims and ethos, policies, handbooks, our social media and codes of conduct were inclusive and compliant, even as the Department For Education, Stonewall and OFSTED visited the school to research our approach.
Now my training has traversed not only the U.K. but also the world- a tremendous, unexpected privilege. My approach is captured in my first book for Bloomsbury Education ‘Celebrating Difference- A Whole School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion.’
Pride Month and LGBT+ History Month (like Black History Month and school diversity weeks) are a fantastic way of heightening visibility of those whose histories, identifies and stories have been erased. Unfortunately, some schools still adopt a ‘tick-box’ approach to diversity and inclusion.
We must all be champions for LGBT+ equality, fostering good relations and acting as flag bearers for acceptance and compassion for natural human diversity of all kinds, all of the time; because whether we like it or not, schools are full of naturally diverse human beings.
Brilliant isn’t it?
So get out there, fly your flags and celebrate Diversity Weeks, Pride Months, LGBT+ History Month, International Day Against Homophobia (17 May) and Anti-Bullying Week each and every year; viewing them as the jewel in your crowns, using them to showcase the amazing work you do each and every day, all year round.
Despite the introduction of LGBT+ inclusive Sex and Realtionships edcuation in the U.K. there is still much to be done until all LGBT+ young people (and those perceived to be) and LGBT+ people of colour feel fully safe, happy and welcome in our schools.
Diversity Day=Every Day
Order ‘Celebrating Difference- A Whole School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion’ from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celebrating-Difference-Shaun-Dellenty/dp/1472961501
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(Blog adapted from one first written for Teach Wire and published 2018)