Being a teacher and being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) is still unacceptably tough.
It's hard to believe that’s still the case fifteen years after the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which had banned the discussion of homosexuality in the classroom.
Then again, Section 28 didn’t just condemn generations of LGBT pupils to grow up without the education and support they needed, it sent a clear message that teaching was not open to LGBT people. It reinforced false, harmful misrepresentations of LGBT people as predatory and dangerous to children. It turned being LGBT into something for parents to worry about.
The clause’s implicit, pernicious misconceptions fused with existing prejudices to make people feel uneasy about LGBT teachers. But if being an openly LGBT teacher was difficult in that climate, being an openly LGBT senior leader was inconceivable. And for many today, it can still seem an impossibility.
While there are no statistics for the number of openly LGBT headteachers, we have a good idea of what life is like for LGBT teachers. A poll for the teaching union NASUWT found that over three-quarters of LGBT teachers aren’t “out” at school, and around half don’t feel it’s safe to be out.
If this is what life is like for many teachers before they take on leadership responsibilities, it’s reasonable to assume that the figures are at least as bad - and more probably worse - for LGBT leaders.
These statistics also remind us that diversifying school leadership requires us to think more about the barriers facing LGBT people at every step on the journey to becoming a school leader.
We need to think about the experience of LGBT people in education from the moment they think about becoming a teacher to when they’re applying for leadership positions. At a time when we’re experiencing a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, we need to think about all the reasons why people decide not to teach in the first place or leave the profession within five years.
Hiding your identity at work takes a heavy toll on your wellbeing. Teaching is stressful enough without having to live a double life. As Claire Birkenshaw, the first headteacher to transition in post, described “existing as Claire at home and coming into work as how I was previously ... was incredibly challenging psychologically.”
This cost of the closet may well be enough to put someone off from joining or staying in the profession. If we can’t recruit or keep LGBT teachers, there won’t be any LGBT senior leaders.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. As Claire and many other inspirational LGBT school leaders show, times have changed: being openly LGBT and being a school leader isn’t an impossibility. There are great organisations, like LGBTed, which supports LGBT teachers, and charities such as Just Like Us, which helps schools become places where everyone - pupil, teacher, senior leaders and governors - can be themselves and be their best.
But, we need to remember that LGBT equality isn’t just LGBT people’s issue: it’s everyone’s issue.
We won’t diversify school leadership without school leaders standing up for LGBT rights as straight and cisgender allies. That means involving your school in national campaigns, such as School Diversity Week, organising LGBT training for staff and ensuring LGBT visibility in your curriculum.
If we want schools to be led by the best people for the job and for our young people to have the best possible education, we need to send a clear message: that being LGBT won’t stop you being a teacher or impose any limit on your ambition.
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.