I work in a school which does not simply tolerate difference but which truly celebrates it.
A school where pupils and staff are openly lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT+), where the most popular society is PGS Pride, where sex education addresses the needs of all pupils; a school where every person has the right to have pride in who they are.
To me, this is a moral issue and a no-brainer. As a teacher, it is my duty to nurture and support my pupils. If they have to hide who they are or face prejudice because of who they love then they cannot flourish as human beings. We know that without this support, life for LGBT+ people can be difficult. The Stonewall school report of 2012 showed that nearly one in four young LGBT people have attempted suicide and over half have self-harmed. More recently, Pride in London’s research showed that 74 per cent of LGBT people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity, with 77 per cent feeling uncomfortable in being their true selves in public (against 23 per cent of the general population) – this is unacceptable and unnecessary. As a school we have demonstrated the positive impact of embracing LGBT+ rights, culture and difference on all of our stakeholders.
The first step was to challenge the hetero-normative curriculum. Sex and relationships education (SRE) in our school has been completely overhauled. We have moved beyond biology and embraced the relationships aspect of SRE, focusing on the issues that are relevant to the students, such as different kinds of love, pornography and sexting. The aim is to give pupils the skills, as well as the knowledge, to be contented individuals who are able to make choices that they are happy with and not necessarily just conform to the stereotypical paradigms of gender and sexuality, that do not always reflect who someone really is.
The PSHE curriculum more broadly, has been adapted to be more inclusive by avoiding heterosexual assumptions and by creating a safe environment for all pupils where open dialogue is encouraged.
Another important step in shifting the culture and mind-set of some pupils has been to publicise the explicit part of my role as LGBT+ support. This is advertised on the wall of every classroom and pupils know that I am there to champion their rights if they need me.
Our most high-profile strategy has been the introduction of the PGS Pride Society. Drawing impressive numbers of pupils and staff on Friday lunchtimes, the society has proved its strong appeal and central place in the life and culture of PGS. Part academic enquiry – part support network, PGS Pride has helped to change hearts and minds in the school with 69 per cent of pupils in Years nine to 13 now saying it would be very easy for a pupil to ‘come out’ compared with 47 per cent in 2013. Likewise, the use of casual homophobia, comments like ‘that’s so gay’ has decreased by 21 per cent over the same period.
Having high profile speakers has been key in engaging so many pupils and staff. Human rights campaigner and activist Peter Tatchell spoke about his personal journey to pride and his commitment to fighting for the rights of LGBT people around the world. Asif Quraishi from Channel 4’s Muslim Drag Queens spoke to pupils about his life as a gay, Muslim man who performs in drag. Trans* journalist Juliet Jacques shared her experience of transitioning from male to female.
Equally popular have been the staff ‘coming out’ talks. The response from pupils has been incredible and I am so proud to have been part of creating a forum for staff to finally be themselves after years of secrecy. Just as important is the message this sends to pupils and the fact that they have visible, out and proud LGBT+ role models.
Marching in Portsmouth’s gay pride parade has been a significant and unambiguous message, to the school and local community, that we truly celebrate difference. Likewise, our end of year party left no doubt about our commitment to Pride when 70 pupils and staff gathered in the school theatre for a brilliant cabaret performance from celebrity drag queen, The Fabulous Miss G. The party ended with everyone on stage singing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Am What I Am’; the perfect accolade to Pride and the celebration of diversity it promotes.
The success of Pride is beginning to spread beyond PGS. This year I lectured trainee teachers at Chichester University and spoke at Stonewall’s Education For All Conference on how to shift school culture towards celebrating difference. I am also working with local schools in helping them to do the same.
Making these changes has been challenging at times but without question this is the most important thing I have achieved in my career. I am so excited to see where we can take this next.
Jo Morgan is Head of The Pastoral Curriculum and teacher of Philosophy at The Portsmouth Grammar School. Since setting up the Pride Society in 2013, the school has transformed into a place which truly and unambiguously celebrates difference. Jo is involved in teacher training and local outreach and is committed to spreading the success of PGS Pride as far as possible.
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