Just before the school Summer holidays I attended a training course for teachers in South London. During the the lunch break I was approached by a female teacher in her mid 40s.
'Are you Shaun Dellenty?' she enquired with a slight reddening of the neck.
'Yes I am' I replied with a mouthful of an endangered local authority sandwich.
'I just wanted to say I think the work you are doing on homophobic bullying is really important. My school kids and my teenage sons say the word 'gay' in a bullying way all the time and I don't really know what to do about it. I really admire you for speaking out, but I have to confess I wouldn't feel able to discuss lesbian and gay people in my Year 6 class and I know my head-teacher is homophobic'.
I thanked her for her honesty and spent some time giving suggestions until we were called away to the dreaded after lunch graveyard slot.
But she got me thinking...
A teacher friend of mine, in the pub one night said to me;
'Stonewall, Schools Out, Elly Barnes, Shaun Dellenty......you are all trying to tackle the problems and you are all perceived as LGBT. When schools tackled racism surely it wasn't just black teachers and school leaders that tackled it? How many teachers in a school feel able to tackle racism and yet are too scared or uncomfortable to mention that LGBT people even exist? That's not right surely?'
I replied that over the years I had met school staff who, through lack of training avoided anything 'unpalatable'. Many teachers I have worked with over the years similarly avoid teaching sex education, because no investment in a strategic, consistent, national approach to training has been made, with serious consequences in terms of teenage pregnancy, rates of HIV infection and other STD infections.
Earlier this year I led a teacher training workshop at a conference with another school leader. Both our schools are known for celebrating diversity and adopting a pro-active approach to tackling homophobic bullying in order to raise standards. Over lunch we observed that we both get invited to speak at such events fairly regularly and that we both are openly gay school leaders; we wondered if schools with LGBT staff are more likely to undertake work to represent different families/LGBT people and adopt a zero -tolerance approach to homophobic bullying?
We both know of school staff, LGBT and heterosexual who undertake work around homophobia but we agreed that maybe the obvious 'champions' tend to be people or groups perceived as being LGBT or who are LGBT.
Over the past couple of years it has been my privilege to speak at various Stonewall and anti-bullying events. During this period of time I have gained a wider sense of what is going on in our schools. I have seen some excellent work and an increasing awareness from LGBT and heterosexual professionals that something more needs to be done in our schools to represent all pupils and their families and to ensure that the school community is free from bullying and pupils are prepared for their adult lives; whether they identify as gay, straight, trans, or anything else in between.
After leading such training in my own and other schools, I was surprised in terms of the number of people (staff and parents) who expressed a desire to see LGBT people better represented in our education system ('You never know, my child might grow up to be gay-at least I know if he comes to a school like this he will feel alright' said one parent) and who feel that the perjorative use of the word 'gay' within their own households and schools is damaging and prejudicial.
My experiences lead me to believe that there are many parents and school staff who really want to see these issues addressed for once and for all. Some of them are indeed LGBT, but many of them are not.
As we move into a new school year, I sincerely hope that a real range of parents and school staff will champion this work and see the benefits of it (apart from the fact that it is now a statutory obligation) as I genuinely believe it benefits the whole school community.
To further the message a wide range of school staff, pupils and parents need to stand up, to speak out, share their successes in these areas and to let schools know that they need to represent and celebrate all of their pupils, their families and provide a safe and respectful environment for the pupils in their care.
This year at my own school, Alfred Salter Primary School is especially exciting. Having undertaken for the last eighteen months training to enable schools to tackle homophobic bullying in a variety of educational contexts, we are, on November 15th, holding our first such training day onsite. (http://cpdnet.org/product/tackling-homophobic-bullying-language-in-schools) This makes us one of the few, if not the only primary school in the UK to act as a training centre for educationalists in tackling homophobic bullying as a means to raising standards for all pupils.
I hope that through such training we can inspire school leaders and staff to go on to great success within their own context and then similarly share this success with other education professionals.
I firmly believe that the structures are already in place for every school in this land to adopt a zero tolerance approach to homophobic bullying within five years. A dream? Maybe, but sometimes we need to dare to dream.
To make this dream happen, we need a wide range of educational role models and fully trained and informed people willing to take a stand for their sake of all the pupils in their care.
In short we need school staff across the land who care enough to put the children first.
Here's to a school year in which every child can be free to achieve their full potential and go on to achieve their dreams.
Once it's done, it's done.