Over the past three years, though developing my Inclusion For All project (www.inclusionforall.co.uk) aimed at training education professionals to prevent homophobic bullying and language in schools, I seem to have developed what one might call a small 'profile 'of sorts.
This 'profile' (for which I am very grateful by the way) means that I am invited to speak at a diverse range of events about my schools anti-homophobia work from presentations at Amnesty, LGBT History Month events, Pride events, local authority and police anti-bullying events, school assemblies, INSET days, radio and television programmes and most unexpectedly of all-at the House of Commons. I also run one Inclusion For All anti-homophobia training day in my own school every term, for which we were recently awarded the Southwark Good Practice Award.
Whilst these engagements provide wonderful opportunities to share these vital messages, there is one 'genre' of speaking engagement which cuts to the very core of why I undertake this work; trainee teacher and newly qualified teacher events.
Back in 2010, when I started speaking out against the endemic levels of homophobia in our schools, I very soon developed an ambition, that one day I might be afforded the opportunity to speak to trainee teachers, right at the start of their careers. It is therefore a tremendous joy to me that I have now addressed many rooms and lecture theatres packed with trainee teachers.
In speaking to trainee teachers, I share my own story of surviving (for that is what it is) homophobic bullying at school. I share case studies of young people, who were not so 'fortunate' such as the tragic losses of Dominic Crouch and Michael Causer. I make explicit the statutory and OFSTED requirements around preventing homophobia and transphobia in schools. I share practical teaching and learning strategies to ensure these torch bearers for young people go into their first teaching position fully equipped not only to prevent bullying and language based upon sexual orientation, but to prevent it happening in schools in the first place. I do this because we are still losing young lives.
After all that, I take a deep breath and ask for feedback and questions.
And here is where it gets very interesting.
A consistently asked question I get from trainee teachers is along these lines:
'Why has nothing been done before?'
As an education professional, faced with clear data around the endemic nature of homophobia and transphobia in our schools and with frightening statistics around homophobic attacks and many cases of self-harm, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse this can be a tough question to answer.
Of course the answer is this, a toxic combination over many years of fear, misconception and outright prejudice on behalf of some people in charge of our education system and our schools.
You see many of the young trainee teachers out there are absolutely appalled to learn the same toxic behaviours that went unchecked when I was a young man in education are still going unchallenged in many schools. But some of them are in for an even greater shock when they enthusiastically begin school placements or their first teaching posts.
Increasingly teacher training establishments quite rightly encourage their teacher trainees to undertake research around homophobia and equalities in schools. Whilst the take up on such research (I am told) is not always huge, those who undertake this work tend to do so with great interest and passion and they are able to place the needs of all children before political or religious points of view; for me a baseline requirement for anyone thinking of entering the teaching profession.
In my limited capacity as an 'outside voice' I have been advocating that teacher training agencies use the current OFSTED guidelines 'Exploring the school's actions to prevent and tackle homophobic and transphobic bulliyng' as a starting point for action research, to enable students to look themselves for evidence that schools are meeting their statutory obligations.
Some trainees and newly qualified teachers desperately want to utilise their passion and lack of 'baggage 'around LGBT matters to help drive this life changing work forward. Let's not forget, some of these young people are growing up in a very different world to many of our more senior school leaders, politicians and governors, where being LGBT is merely part of the fabric of nature, life and society; which of course, it is.
Where evidence suggests that no anti-homophobia work is being undertaken in schools, this in itself can still be highly worthy of research and can paint a few unpalatable truths.
For teachers the easiest way to begin teaching about same sex families and homophobia is to use what get labelled as ' books about difference.' Some of these books you may be familiar with, such as King and King (Linda De Haan/Stern Nijland)and When Tango Makes Three' (Peter Parnell/Justin Richardson) as from time to time some corners of the press get themselves in a tizzy when they clearly can't differentiate between what is education and information and what is promotion.
Through being party to discussions of homophobic bullying with young people in schools over the past few years, it is always a surprise to me how they just instinctively get the injustice of it, once the facts are explained. It has been my privilege to witness some deeply profound and moving discussions about the nature of different families and prejudice, as far down schools as reception and Year 1.
Often children will find the notion that anyone could have an issue with either two men or two women who love each another getting married simply unbelievable and will have no problem saying so. As one teacher I worked with recently reminded me;
'It's rarely the kids that have the problem with it, it's just the occasional parent and the difference between what they think we are doing and what we are actually teaching is usually the issue'.
Surely then with statutory backing from the Equality Act and with OFSTED now being critical of educational establishments for not taking pro-active steps to prevent homophobia and transphobia should we not be at an important cusp of a fundamental and life-changing shift for the better in our schools?
Yet I am still deeply concerned about some school leaders' commitment to placing the needs of all the pupils in their care before their own lack of fear, misconception and yes, in some cases, prejudice around different families, homophobia and LGBT matters.
I am deeply alarmed by the number of young trainee and newly qualified teachers who leave training feeling passionate, inspired and informed enough to use all of their energy and inertia to tackle these issues using the 'books about difference' as a stimulus for lessons and discussions in schools only to be told by senior management 'you can't use books like that in this school'. Books like what for goodness sake? We are not talking about gay porn, just books that show the actual diversity of our lives. It is called being 'age appropriate' and it is not rocket science.
Then there are the students and newly qualified teachers who want to undertake pupil voice questionnaires around the negative use of the word gay that are told 'that is not appropriate here'. Or those who put up 'Some people are gay' posters, who are told to take them down.
Not only is this profoundly demotivating, it reinforces prejudice and also sends a deeply worrying message to the next generation of teachers in terms of our courageousness to stand up for the well-being and safety of all the wonderful young people in our care-and that in turn reflects dreadfully upon our profession. Truth be told I find it shameful, not only for our trainee teachers but for the children in our schools who will suffer as a result.
I just hope that these brave young teachers, who go into the world of education with open minds and hearts, will hold onto their sense of justice and of what is right, long after the bitter taste of fear, misconception and prejudice fades after their formative experiences in some of our schools. School leaders who quietly avoid these issues, whether it be through lack of training, fear, misconception or prejudice could learn so much from some of these amazing young people who are entering the profession at what is after all, a very unsettling time.
Can we finally not be courageous enough as a profession to empower an entire generation of children to pass through our education system free to be proud of themselves, their friends and their families, whoever they are and whatever their emergent identity? Only then, when our education system is fully inclusive can we stand as a beacon in the face of some of the human rights atrocities being committed in Russia, Nigeria, Uganda and yes, even the United States of America.
This is my dream, and through working with the trainee teachers of tomorrow I am happier in the knowledge it is a dream shared by many entering my profession.
Go change the future.....please?