Like many of us working in education today, my own school experience was affected by Section 28 - a harmful piece of legislation that prevented schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’. Section 28 gave permission for, fuelled and perpetuated stigma, censorship, and the toxic message that to be LGBTQI+ is wrong. For many of my colleagues, Section 28 was part of their teacher training, meaning their early practice was strongly impacted by the hate and fear Section 28 encapsulated in law. It would be naive to assume that the effects on those adults working in education today, who were educated and trained under that law, simply disappeared when it was repealed.
As we mark the 30th anniversary of Section 28 coming into force we need to reflect on its impact, celebrate the progress we’ve made, but also think about how far we still have to go.
At Woodside High School, where I am headteacher, we’re extremely proud of our diversity; we embrace it, celebrate it and champion it wherever we can. We do a great deal of work across the school on equality and diversity and we are the only secondary school in London to be Gold Award Stonewall School Champions.
Much of the work we do would have been impossible under Section 28. Our thriving student Equality and Diversity group have led our school-wide celebrations of LGBT History Month for the past few years. They put pictures and information about LGBTQI+ role models on every door of every classroom. They have proudly delivered assemblies to the whole school wearing Stonewall t-shirts emblazoned with “Some people are gay/trans/bi. Get over it”. They have designed and given rainbow wristbands and badges with the slogan “Woodside Pride” to every member of our school community. Talking and learning about LGBTQI+ issues is something students want to engage with and it’s our duty as educators to respond to the needs of all young people.
But Section 28 would have classed all of this as illegal.
I can’t imagine my school without the joyous and enriching celebrations of LGBT History Month. Incorporating LGBT issues and people into our teaching has an enormously positive impact on both our students and staff. Teaching about diversity helps increase understanding and acceptance.
Critically, for me, Section 28 would have prevented us from upholding our values of equality and diversity that run through all our work. From the curriculum, to how lessons are delivered, how our support systems are planned, to the extra-curricular experiences students have. Our values mean that equality and diversity are considered across all strands of practice and results in an enriching, varied and meaningful learning environment and experience for all members of our school community. Without them, not only would we be sending a very damaging message to our students, failing to educate them in an environment where everyone can feel safe, but we would also be denying them the opportunity to grow into fully rounded, engaged and compassionate global citizens.
None of this is to say that we don’t still feel the damaging impact Section 28 has left. Prejudice and discrimination still exists, both at Woodside and beyond. Nearly half of LGBT pupils (45%) are bullied for being LGBT in Britain’s schools. For all our progress, we are far from complacent. We work every day to challenge it and to educate others and we would not have it any other way.
We put in a great deal of hard work and have comprehensive systems to support our students. We are acutely aware of the very real risks and damage that a non-inclusive environment can have on students’ wellbeing. School is a place to learn. It should also be a place where people feel safe and supported. This cannot happen if they are unable to be themselves, feel ashamed, or if they need to hide who they are.