Next summer, Hereford will host the county's first ever Teen Pride event.
We will be inviting teenagers from all over the county to join us in celebrating who they are, however how can we be sure it will be a success? Is there really a need for something like this in a small, sleepy provincial city?
A few days into the new academic year, the Head of Year 7 arrived at my door, student in tow.
"Hi, Miss, this is Katie*; she's transgender and wants to join the LGBT group."
After her very first visit she proclaimed, “I love this group”.
Katie's situation is not remarkable in itself - at The Hereford Academy we currently have at least five students who openly identify as trans or non-binary. However, what is increasingly noticeable is the age at which students are confidently and openly identifying themselves as LGBTQ+.
A girl in my year 7 group happily announced to the whole class that she is bisexual during a discussion on information texts (I'm not even sure what the link was). One boy asked what that meant and, after an explanation, I was pleased with the reaction of the class...almost total indifference.
I'd love to say that homophobic bullying doesn't exist at our school but that would be a step too far; what I can tell you is that, by and large, it is the students themselves who police it - not in shouts and arguments, but in quietly turning their backs on those who don't embrace equality. This didn't happen by accident: two very important factors have led us to this point.
The first was an invitation from Sheffield Hallam University to be a 'Learn Equality = Live Equal' school. This programme forced us as a school to examine our shortcomings when it came to tackling Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic (HBT) bullying.
Sadly, there were many. We had incidences of HBT bullying with no strategies for prevention. Staff had received no training on how to tackle HBT bullying or how to support LGBTQ+ students (although this is not uncommon; Stonewall’s data from 2017 says that 80% of secondary school teachers receive no specific training). Regrettably, it was not even something that we planned to tackle via the school improvement plan.
Using the self-assessment as our basis, we sought rapid improvement. Some things were simple: ensure that HBT bullying is specifically part of the bullying policy and that opportunities are used to raise awareness of the impact of HBT bullying.
A ‘That's so Gay’ assembly focused on why this common phrase (heard by 86% of students surveyed by Cambridge University in 2017) is not appropriate. Education saves the day, who knew? By highlighting the issue of casual homophobic language, use of this and similar phrases reduced dramatically. It became, dare I say it, uncool!
We are still working towards other measures. Staff training, for example, is on the calendar for this year and needs to be an ongoing priority. We are also working towards greater visibility of LGBTQ+ icons across the school.
November’s Anti-Bullying Week also gives us a great opportunity to encourage all curriculum areas to fly the flag for role models in their subject. We are confident that we are moving ever forward.
The second and most powerful factor was the students themselves. Two years ago, a group of nervous year 9 students petitioned the headteacher to allow them to have an LGBTQ+ society. From humble beginnings, a small group of friends meeting weekly, their confidence grew. By the summer they were running a stall at the school fete, quizzing people on what the letters in LGBTQ+ stood for (answers at the bottom**) and offering rainbow fairy cakes.
It was here that they first met our local MP. Now, whether you are a fan of politics or not, there is no doubting the kudos associated with having a parliamentary undersecretary ask to visit the school having been impressed with the LGBTQ+ society at an open event (and I don't think it was their baking).
Suddenly this group had gained status and, with it, gravitas. People began to take notice of this rapidly growing group and, when something gets taken notice of in a school, that's when you can affect real change.
It hasn't all been plain sailing: there was the suggestion that the kids needed to be issued with membership cards to allow them access to the classroom at lunchtime. A sensible, adult conversation concluded that no, students should not have to identify themselves as members of the group in order to access what is essentially a drop-in support service.
So what does the group do? Sometimes we chat, sometimes we debate, sometimes we watch something interesting (Stonewall’s ‘FIT’ DVD, ‘Yuri on Ice’ and ‘Love Simon’ have all been popular): yes, it really is that vague. Often we are organising for the next event - currently our stall at the Christmas fair. But what we always do is make time and space for people to just be themselves.
The thing is, it's their group. Whilst I might assist with meetings, organising and presenting, everything that the group does is student-led; every assembly I do on this topic is checked by them first; even this blog goes to them first because they earned that right when they set this up.
What really excites me is the legacy they are leaving behind. Because of those year 9s we have a thriving LGBTQ+ community and, as they leave in year 11, others will continue it. Teen Pride will be their leaving party and Hereford needs it because other teens need to feel empowered too.
So, back to Katie and why she loves the group - it's really very simple.
In a data-driven world, I can tell you that we now meet 13 of the 16 targets set on the self-evaluation provided by Learn Equality = Live Equal (an increase of 76%); so much progress in fact that we have been nominated for the award of ‘Most Engaged School’ in the programme!
I can tell you that HBT bullying is at an all-time low and I can even tell you that progress has improved for those students. The best measure, however, comes from the members themselves. Students were asked to give feedback on what having the LGBTQ+ group means to them and these two quotations sum up what they said:
"Having an LGBTQ+ group has made me feel I'm not alone"
"Having an LGBTQ+ group has really helped me be proud of who I am".
Now if that doesn't make the group worth having, then nothing does.
**L= Lesbian G= gay B= Bisexual T= Transgender Q= Questioning (we tend to use this rather than queer) += everyone.
This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.