Last week I was asked several times on Twitter whether I thought the concept a segregated 'LGBT School' in Manchester is a good idea; in this case 140 characters seemed woefully inadequate. Let me state upfront that if it is needed as a means of saving young people at urgent risk then I applaud those who have identified this need, practical problems require practical problem solving.
As is fairly well documented, I walked out of sixth form in complete disillusionment with the British education system. Years of experiencing homophobic attitudes from some of my peers and teachers, compounded by negative messages from my parents, the media, some politicians and some people of faith led me to a critical juncture in which I retreated home, having researched methods of suicide and turned on the bath taps accompanied only by a Martini bottle and rusty razor blade.
The decision I made that day in 1987, to pull back from the abyss, allowed me ten years later to return to adult learning and subsequently resulted in my role as a school leader with an equalities remit. How appalled then was I to discover in 2009, that 75% of our own South London pupils were experiencing on a daily basis, the same kinds of homophobic bullying and language that had nearly snatched away my own life.
Having devised the award-winning teacher training strategy www.inclusionforall.co.uk that empowered our school (and now many others) to get on top of this problem by shifting school culture and ethos to a preventative state, I was then equally appalled to find myself present at a 2012 Stonewall briefing only to hear that their School Report survey had found 'more than 55% of LGB pupils have experienced direct bullying and almost all had heard the 'use of the word gay as a negative' (as in 'that's so gay'). Then just last year I was invited to a briefing by the LGBT support charity Metro, who had surveyed 7,000 16-24 year olds across the UK about their experiences, with results showing 52% of young LGBT people reported self-harming and 44% considered suicide. I regularly deliver these damning statistics around the country as part of my "Inclusion For All" teacher training conferences and workshops and in school assemblies, not one training session or lecture passes when my heart doesn't break a little when I read them out.
Despite the well- meaning hard working individuals and organisations, from available data (and from working with many schools, teacher training organisations and young people over the last five years) it is very clear to me we still have a major problem in our schools that is endangering the lives of the many of the brilliant unique human souls we supposedly come into education to support, protect and nurture. Statistics like this in 2015, in fact in any year, are a national disgrace. Schools have a statutory duty to protect young people from ALL forms of bullying including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic , yet it is clear that this is still not the case in many schools who have been starved of clear strategic direction and dedicated training.
Is it any real surprise then that an inspiring, dedicated group such as LGBT Youth West would see an urgent need to protect significantly at risk young LGBT people and create a dedicated safe space? The formation of an LGBT school in the UK (if that is actually what is intended, LGBT Youth West claim not to have actual school plans developed currently) was surely only a matter of time. Where such a critical vacuum exists (and by this I mean young LGBT people at risk of suicide, self-harm and the loss of the right to an education) of course dedicated individuals and groups will step in and fill the void to ensure young people are safe and fully included and I applaud them.
Most vitally we need to prevent the void from presenting itself in the first place, however with decades of inaction from successive governments, generations of unprepared teachers and the pernicious legislation that was Section 28, we have a hell of a lot of catching up to do to make all schools safe places for all our children, including the LGBT ones, the questioning, the intersex and every other precious individual that files through our doors.
Whether we choose to be a classroom assistant, a teacher, a head teacher, a school governor or an education secretary the bottom line is surely this; either support and make safe ALL young people in our schools or find an alternative career. Safety and inclusion in our schools should never be a privilege for the pupils that are palatable to us; they are a right for all young people, not just those who might fit in nicely with our personal, political or theological beliefs.
Despite the great work being done by anti-LGBT bullying organisations across the country, we will never fully create safe spaces in our schools until our government commits to statutory components and funding for all initial and subsequent teacher training on preventing prejudice towards not just LGBT people, but all those perceived to be difference. I am pleased that funds have recently been set aside for groups challenging homophobia in schools, but to be sustainable and rigorous in ridding our schools of the scourge of prejudice we must rethink education policy on a national scale.
Teaching and learning from the outset of education about the causes and potential for prejudice in human beings (particularly in the dangerous world of the 2st century) should be seen as an educational priority, a life skill and an investment for all our futures. There exists the unpalatable reality that we have some school leaders, staff and governing bodies, and sadly yes some people of faith in schools who still harbour prejudice towards LGBT people; until we take a long hard look an education system that currently leaves many young people and teachers deeply unsupported in working through issues of difference, the abyss into which young LGBT people can fall will remain. I have recently been working with Amnesty International on a new LGBT Teaching Resource for schools which we hope will start many more schools on this vital journey.
With the Equality Act 2010 providing statutory expectations upon schools to protect its LGBT pupils and OFSTED being openly critical of schools (including faith schools) failing to undertake anti-LGBT bullying work, the climate should, in theory exist to take great strides forwards in our schools; sadly this climate is offset by larger limiting factors of a huge historical and on-going training deficit, heads and governing bodies that are complacent (or in some cases prejudicial) and an on-going focus upon the raising of educational standards as a political football. Let's be clear here Education Secretaries, young LGBT people being driven out of their schools will do nothing to raise much vaunted educational standards, but more vitally as educators we are letting these brilliant young souls down. How many young LGBT people whose names we will never know have we lost over the years due to an education system that has failed them?
I applaud LGBT Youth West for wanting to reach out and help these young people, to provide the potentially life-saving safe space our education system has failed to provide; yet we must rigorously strive to affect fundamental and lasting change to the education system, not just at the very top with ministers but also in our teacher training programmes and schools from the very onset of nursery provision to ensure that the aim of full inclusion, not segregation can be realised.
This is the message I gave at Amnesty International this weekend and the same message I will deliver at the London Festival of Education and Houses of Parliament in February. All schools should be safe spaces for all pupils; there must be no compromise when lives are at stake.
It is also vital to stress at this time that there is amazing work going on in schools and faith schools up and down the country right now to try and make things better for LGBT pupils; we don't shout loudly enough about this and I strongly urge OFSTED to undertake a good practice study of anti-LGBT bullying work being undertaken in faith schools to help boost confidence and build some bridges. Since my own Inclusion For All work was recommended by the Church of England, it has been a huge joy to me to help ease faith school staff onto a journey that will ultimately save lives.
Aim for inclusion not segregation, acceptance not tolerance and be warm in praise of those who spot young people at risk and hold out a hand to help, we absolutely need more of that in the world about now. If our education system had not systematically failed generations of LGBT young people, the issue of segregation might not have arisen in the first place.
Cause and effect; people can be so quick to criticise the latter, without taking responsibility for the former, we all must play our part in affecting change for LGBT children from the moment they appear on this Earth, or else for many it may already be a case of game over.