As educators, we all want to give our students knowledge and skills to thrive in the world. More than that, we want them to feel safe. If we reflect back to a time when we were children ourselves, it is likely that our best memories were when we felt part of something - be it a group, a club or involved in an event. That sense of belonging and pride that made us feel like we mattered. For young LGBT+ people, it can be difficult to experience that very feeling, not just in wider society but in schools too. For example, nearly half of LGBT+ pupils - including 64 percent of trans pupils – are bullied in Britain’s schools. This is why it is so important to ensure education is inclusive. However, this should not just be for the benefit of students from minority groups. For example, understanding the amazing contributions made by LGBT+ people in history, learning about queer art and culture and reading literature by LGBT+ writers inevitably benefits all students, regardless of their identity. It allows students to understand and connect with each other, it gives them a broader narrative and worldview and it helps to break down barriers and stereotypes.
I know this because I have seen first-hand the benefits in my own school.
I work in a large school in Suffolk and had noticed that there was an increasing number of young people coming out as LGBT+. With the support of my colleagues, I set up a school Diversity and Community Group, open to all year groups. You didn’t have to identify as LGBT+ to join. Instead, it was open to all who cared about diversity, whether that be tackling racism, ableism, xenophobia. It soon became clear that the students wanted to be part of changes to the school and LGBT+ was the top of the list.
Then the pandemic hit. Whilst it was a difficult time for everyone, for LGBT+ young people, the pandemic presented a number of unique challenges, for example, not being able to be open about their gender and sexuality at home. If ever there was a time young people needed this group, it was during school closure. So we switched to online meetings, recording the sessions for safeguarding reasons, and we got on with our important work!
We worked on addressing some of the issues that students said they faced in school about their identity. Students felt that teachers did not always know what to say when attempting to combat homophobic language in schools. I learnt that this made LGBT+ students feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Students did not blame teachers, they believed that it was because staff were fearful of getting something wrong. This belief was confirmed when I delivered some all staff training for a professional development day on diversity and inclusion. Many staff said that they want to help LGBT+ students feel celebrated but felt they did not have the tools or appropriate terminology to do it justice.
The Diversity and Community Group responded by creating an LGBT+ Language Toolkit for staff. They spent months of lockdown working collaboratively on the project, researching the history of LGBT+ terms, opening up and learning from each other about preferred pronouns and theevolution of language. They all contributed to the writing, style and overall design of the booklet. Equipping people with the language and knowledge has given students and staff the opportunity to have such important and honest conversations about LGBT+ topics. Conversations that perhaps before we were too scared to have for fear of offending each other or getting it wrong. The main message of the project from students to staff was ‘It’s always ok to ask’ and this has really broken down barriers.
The booklet is in every staff team room and in every classroom; not only does it provide visibility and a message to students that LGBT+ inclusion matters in our school, but it has inspired conversations from staff about how to make our curriculum more inclusive. This has led to a whole school commitment to LGBT+ inclusion, something that I am very proud of. For example, the Key Stage 3 History curriculum now fully embeds LGBT+ individuals and events. In Year 7, students learn about LGBT+ royalty and attitudes in Tudor society. In Year 8, they hear the story of the wonderful Anne Lister, as well as suffragettes who explored same-sex sexuality such as Annie Kenney, Mary Blathwayt and people who didn’t conform to genders, like Vera ‘Jack’ Holme. In Year 9, Bayard Rustin’s story provides a backdrop to the study of the American Civil Rights movement whilst a study of the sexual revolution in 1920s Berlin also features. This all culminates in a in depth study on the LGBT+ movement in USA and Britain, shining a light on the contributions of individuals such as Ted Brown, Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, Roberta Cowell and the Gay Liberation Front.
I would argue that a truly LGBT+ inclusive school would ensure their curriculum covers this incredible history but there are lots of things schools can do to start being more inclusive. Never underestimate the power of imagery! Think about who the classroom displays and images reflect? What message does it give to LGBT+ people? Is it clear that anti-LGBT+ behaviour is not acceptable? Does it celebrate the positives or just focus on the persecution of minority groups? I am proud that my colleagues across subjects have prioritised making their department displays more LGBT+ celebratory.
My advice to any schools is simple; give students spaces to feel safe; give them agency and listen to their lived experiences and then take action to make changes. We can no longer keep seeing LGBT+ inclusion in schools as an additional workload, another thing on the ‘to-do’ list. It is integral to creating a school and an education system where all children see themselves reflected. Now is the time to act.
Follow Bex Bothwell-O’Hearn on Twitter @Bex_Diversity and Suffolk DEI Network @SuffolkDEI, to find out more about the great diversity inclusion work they are doing.
Find out more about Northgate High School’s Diversity & Inclusion group and view the Inclusive Language Toolkit by visiting: www.northgate.suffolk.sch.uk/staff/northgate-diversity-and-community-group
Find out more about Pearson’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in education, as well as free resources, please visit the dedicated page here and follow @PearsonSchools.