Courage in the classroom

Dr Catherine Lee, deputy dean for education at Anglia Ruskin University, says there is important learning about LGBT inclusion to be explored by school leaders, governors and policymakers

There are an estimated 50,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teachers in UK schools. There have been helpful legislative developments to improve LGBT inclusion such as The Equality Act (2010) and The Equal Marriage Act (2015), which have both contributed to safeguarding LGBT staff and their families from discrimination.

However, LGBT teachers still report that equality laws do not necessarily help them feel any more safe and secure in the classrooms and staffrooms of UK schools. They often find themselves in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ relationship with their schools, where they hide their personal lives completely in exchange for so-called tolerance from others.

Schools have long been challenging workplaces for LGBT teachers. Section 28 of the Local Government Act between 1988 and 2003 prevented teachers from promoting homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’ and left most LGBT teachers thinking they would lose their jobs should their sexual identity be revealed at school.

The most worrying development is the recent school gate protests about the inclusion of LGBT relationships in RSE from September 2020. In 2019 some parents and people in faith communities, most notably in Birmingham, protested outside school gates opposing the efforts of schools teaching about LGBT people through the No Outsiders programme.

The protests were so disruptive that one school, Anderton Park, successfully applied for an injunction to prevent future protests taking place in the immediate vicinity of the school. Andrew Moffatt, a gay teacher at nearby Parkfield School, received death threats for his No Outsiders work and needed to be escorted to and from school by the police. This shows that the mere mention of sexual and gender identities in school still has the potential to create moral panic in parents.

The UK’s only leadership programme for LGBT teachers, Courageous Leaders, began in 2016 and has supported over 50 LGBT teachers to apply for, and achieve, school leadership roles as their out and authentic selves.

The Courageous Leaders programme pairs LGBT aspiring leaders with an LGBT mentor for a year and through leadership training days that directly address the issues facing LGBT teachers, works with them to achieve success. Set up by Essex headteacher Jane Robinson, with school leaders in the East of England and Anglia Ruskin University, Courageous Leaders attracts teachers from as far afield as Ayrshire, Bristol, Yorkshire and Norfolk. In 2019, two teachers even joined the programme remotely from China.

During the programme, the leaders regularly speak about their positive and negative experiences of teaching. As one of the leaders of the programme, it struck me that there was important learning about LGBT inclusion for school leaders, governors, policymakers and other teachers from these powerful personal testimonies, and so the idea for the book Courage in the Classroom: LGBT Teachers Share their Stories was conceived.

The accounts in the book reflect on the classrooms and staffrooms of state and independent schools, in primary and prep schools, in sixth forms and in early years.

The stories are varied. One teacher describes receiving homophobic abuse in the rural English countryside, whilst another explores subverting ‘hetero and cisnormative’ power structures in London.

Each LGBT teacher has written about what in education is most important to them. Some teachers present a historical perspective and celebrate how things have changed for the better in schools. Others talk about the importance of safe spaces for LGBT teachers, of being roles models for young people, and of individual struggles to find out and assert who they really are.

For some teachers, the accounts have clearly been extraordinarily painful to write. For others they have been cathartic, or empowering. For most, this is the first time they have told their story publicly and certainly the first time it has appeared in a book.

The book also reflects on the reasons for the phenomenal success of the Courageous Leaders programme. Drawing on the testimonies of the programme’s alumni, I have examined the way in which the programme has impacted those who have participated.

Practical recommendations conclude the book, outlining what schools can do to create a safe and welcoming workplace for LGBT teachers and other staff, LGBT pupils and LGBT families.

You can order a copy of the book on Amazon and apply for the Courageous Leaders programme by visiting:

You might also like: Stonewall launches LGBT curriculum for primary schools

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