One of the great privileges in undertaking my work in tackling homophobia in schools is that it brings me into contact with a wide range of people, from school staff and governors, parents and children to ex pupils, ministers and the odd 'celeb'.
Recently I delivered a presentation at the excellent Camden Anti-Bullying Conference, the theme of which was overcoming homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Over the past few years I have attended a number of such conferences, either as a speaker or as a delegate.
One of the things that pleased me about this particular conference was the number of delegates attending from faith schools or schools with a large faith based communities. Indeed the most moving presentation of the day came from a number of Muslim students, from a school with a 95% Muslim community, who spoke passionately about their faith, before sharing their superb LGBT history month presentation and anti-bullying work.
My work has always been driven by the need to make things better for all children in our schools and communities, and to this end I see no reason to adapt my messages or strategies to schools of faith. But what is interesting is the number of people I come into contact with, (professionals and non professionals) who express a closed view as to the potential for faith schools to want to tackle homophobic bullying.
Several times when talking about my work at teaching conferences, I have been approached by school staff who praise my work and then proceed to say discreetly that they could do nothing in their own school to tackle homophobic bullying for fear of offending pupils, staff, governors or parents of faith.
Similarly, when spending a recent weekend undertaking a mail shot to every school in Southwark to advertise our upcoming anti-homophobic bullying training days at Alfred Salter Primary School, a couple of friends expressed surprised to see me sending flyers to Catholic Schools.
It seems there are some people who assume that faith schools and their staff pupils and parents are all somehow homophobic themselves and would baulk at the very idea of fulfilling their statutory obligation in tackling homophobic bullying.
It would be naive of me to think that such opposition doesn't exist in some quarters and I have encountered it directly from a headteacher of a Catholic school who openly stated that she would not employ LGBT staff; but the polarisation of LGBT people and the varying faith groups that exist seems in some cases based upon assumption rather than experience. Some LGBT people I have met often seem to assume that we are all non believers or are somehow cast out from faith groups.
My work has brought me in contact with many LGBT people of faith and many people of faith who see the need to tackle homophobia and teach about LGBT people and their history. We need to be looking for such champions and building bridges between faith and LGBT communities. Wrongly held assumptions based on stereotype hinder this process and therefore impact upon our ability to make things better for ourselves and for our children.
I often reflect upon my first teaching job in Northampton, where as a man openly living with another man not of faith, I taught all of the Religious Education. I covered the six world religions, knowing at this challenging school RE was the lesson in which most pupils tended to misbehave. It was my job, as teacher to educate and inform in an unbiased manner and with as much relevance, interest and passion that I could. Some of the discussions around faith and the discussions around similarities and differences were so profound I can remember them with clarity fifteen years on.
I have a Catholic colleague in Leicestershire who sees it as the right of all pupils to know that LGBT people exist and that they are vulnerable to bullying. She delivers this information (with the approval of the head-teacher) in the knowledge that regardless of the views of the Catholic or any other faith, some of the children that come through her door will grow up to be LGBT and/or have LGBT family or friends.
The assumption that teaching around homophobia in schools will lead to a negative reaction, negative press or the lynching of the headteacher is simply not true, provided the work is undertaken in a strategic and transparent manner, with rationale, pupil voice data and statutory and moral obligations clearly communicated from the outset.
Of course there may be some parents, perhaps of faith or perhaps not, who may hold prejudice or misconceptions that the school is about to 'turn the kids gay;' or 'be teaching about gay sex'.
It is our job as school leaders to take on this challenge and be clear to the school community about the content and the benefits of this work and the implications for all children that not undertaking it will have on achievement, attendance and the physical and mental health of our children.
As teachers and school leaders we face regular parental challenge over such matters as the content of school lunch-boxes, school reports, pupil punishments and whether or not a child gets a large role in an end of year show.
To accept a role as a school leader means one has to be ready to accept and offer challenge even sometimes to OFSTED, in order to ensure we place the needs of our children first and make things better for all who live and learn within our schools.
This theme of assumptions has become a large part of my work around tackling homophobic bullying. One training session saw me ask teachers to brainstorm every variation on a family grouping that they could think of; these were then written on a what looked like a giant loo roll and was rolled out across the hall floor whilst we all stood around the edge with raised eyebrows.
I think we counted 30 types of family groups.
'My goodness, haven't we been making assumptions about where our children come from?' said a nursery nurse, as staff scurried off to audit the resources and images of family groups around the school to ensure they were representative....
Doing the work I do has made me somehow more attuned to noticing all forms of prejudice and discrimination, it has also allowed me a greater insight into how making assumptions can immediately throw up barriers to a development process.
In the case of work around tackling homophobia in schools, the positive impact upon generations of children yet to come is potentially so great, that schools need to be self aware and reflective in recognising where they may be making assumptions about all stakeholders in their communities, people of faith and LGBT people.
School also need to be empowering children in terms of recognising themselves where they are making assumptions and offering opportunities to challenge them with the whole school community.
One secondary pupil I met recently told me she had been on my website;
'I think it's great what you are doing, do you mind if I ask, did you always know you were gay?'
I replied that I always knew I was different and that I was attracted to men.
'So you never had a girlfriend then?' she asked
'Yes I had a few and then when I was 17 I was going to get engaged to an American girl' I told her.
She looked confused for a moment and asked:
'So are you bisexual then?'
I smiled at her and then said;
'Do you know what, the more I do this work, the more people I talk to, the more I realise what damage labels do to people. So nowadays I just like to think of myself as Shaun.'
I don't know if she knew what I meant, but I think she did. She placed her hand in my arm, gave me a huge smile and said 'keep up the good work' before walking back to her class-mates.
Like I said earlier, a privilege.
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