It is 2010 and I’ve been Deputy Headteacher of a large inner city primary school in London for several years.
There is a knock at my office door and two children stand looking crestfallen, accompanied by a red faced lunch time supervisor.
“Can you sort this out please Shaun?” she asks, obviously annoyed. “Jason here called David gay and now David is upset”
“OK, what have you done so far?” I ask the red faced lunch time supervisor.
“I told Billy off and told him it wasn’t a very nice thing to say. I brought them straight to you as I thought, well, that you could sort this one out” comes the reply.
This anecdote conveys the sense of an adult working in a school who is either unwilling or unable to tackle homophobic bullying. This event proved to be a turning point for me, as that red-faced lunch time supervisor was one of many adults in my own school who presented me, the single openly gay member of staff in my own school with any and every incident that involved the use of homophobic bullying or language, particularly the use of “You’re gay” and the use of “those (trainers/jeans etc) are gay” as a pejorative term.
I started to ask questions: what happens I wondered, in schools where there are no gay staff, who deals with homophobic incidents in these schools?
What happens with homophobic incidents in a faith school? Could opinions on homosexuality create barriers to dealing with homophobic bullying and language and result in children being damaged? After all, whether we approve or not, statistically some of those small children in faith schools will also grow up to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Would adults in schools always send incidents of racism to a black member or school leadership or bullying around disability to a disabled member of staff?
How could pupils with gay family members or friends feel included if they were told that ‘gay’ was not a ‘nice word to say’?
What of those pupils, some of whom are already aware at primary school age that they are different, who only hear negative associations from certain sections of the media, family members, peers and adults in school? I knew first hand how self awareness at an early age ( I first knew I was attracted to men around the age of four) can lead to the feeling that one is growing up in an alien world.
I was also aware of the impact upon pupil attendance, attainment, mental and physically health of homophobic bullying.
In recent years at my school we had experienced several children openly questioning their identity and using the words gay and transgender which seemed to result in staff backing off or feeling uncomfortable in terms of how to reassure pupils.
Training was sorely needed, and it was needed by the whole staff, from school leaders to the premises manager and dinner supervisors.
I started by auditing pupils in Key Stage Two using a questionnaire around the the different kinds of bullying and language they were experiencing. I used a similar questionnaire with all staff to see how confident they felt in tacking various forms of bullying and prejudice, dealing with same sex parents and whether or not they thought the pejorative use of “you’re so gay/those trainers are so gay” could actually cause emotional damage to a child with same sex parents, gay siblings or if they were actually themselves questioning their identity.
The questionnaires proved to be a very relevant starting point for the work that has now morphed into my charitable organisation Inclusion For All.
• 75% of pupils were hearing “You’re so gay/lesbian” and “those trainers are so gay” on a daily basis.
• 65% of staff in the school did not see a link between the use of the use of gay as a pejorative term and homophobic bullying.
• No one had any training on homophobia or LGBT issues.
Through carefully planned training events and assemblies I fed this data back to pupils, parents and staff. I knew I would need to remain open to a range of views on the subject whilst ensuring that the rationale for the work was kept to the needs of the pupils to be successful, safe and happy.
The training was well received and within a school year we had reduced incidents of homophobic bullying to zero. We also observed a shift in prejudicial attitudes on a wider basis amongst pupils, parents and staff and as a result the school community has become more cohesive.
The obvious next step was for me to take what we had done and offer it to other schools locally, as a result of this work I began to get requests to speak at Stonewall and other anti-bullying conferences. We were also invited to become a founding member of the Stonewall School Champion Scheme.
Over time it became apparent to me that I needed to keep a record of my work and that this in itself could encourage and support other school leaders to address homophobic bullying in their own schools; thus www.shaundellenty.com was born.
I was keen for the website to support teachers in tearing down some of the barriers that schools put up to this work, and to this end I wanted to interview school staff who had been through the process already and were able to talk about their work and its positive impact on camera. These Inclusion For All ‘videocasts’ have proved to be a talking point and are being added to regularly.
I am pleased to report that the website has been well received and despite it being early days, I have heard now heard from teachers, parents and pupils from across the globe who feel that more should be done to educate and inform about LGBT people in our schools. Only this week I heard from a teacher in Florida who is using www.shaundellenty.com as a teaching resource with her class of 11 year olds.
This year I became the first openly gay school leader to lead a workshop on homophobic bullying at the National College for School Leadership annual conference, this Autumn I am meeting with the Department of Education to see what more can be done on a strategic level nationally.
Inclusion For All has grown from being an idea forged to address a problem in one school to being a small charitable organisation and as such I am about to start fundraising.
November 15 saw our first ‘in house’ training day at my own school, Alfred Salter Primary School, dedicated to tackling homophobic bullying, training which we hope to run once a term. In the meantime I continue to offer training to schools and individuals and attempt to share positive messages of how tackling homophobic bullying in schools can raise standards for all children and empower schools to tackle all forms of prejudice based bullying.
It is my dream, having reduced incidents of homophobic bullying to practically zero within a year in my own school, that within five years every school in this country will take a similar stance. If not, it is us, as school leaders that will have to face the shame that we let our pupils down.
For more information view: Shaun Dellenty