Friday, 18 March 2011

Defending diversity: teaching LGBT awareness in schools

When Toby Young, founder of one of the new "free schools", launched an attack on the "loony" excesses of state schools, he chose to focus on LGBT awareness activities at one east London comprehensive. Parents and teachers spoke to Hsiao-Hung Pai:
It’s not easy to be a minority in Britain these days – and I don’t only mean ethnically. Within the context of the current attacks on diversity, even raising awareness about rights of a minority (be it ethnic or sexual) has been condemned as “political correctness gone mad” or “loony left”, in the words of Toby Young, the wealthy Tory columnist and the founder of West London free school.

Toby Young singled out one of the most ethnically diverse comprehensives in Hackney, Stoke Newington School, for its “crazy excesses of contemporary state education”, that is, the school’s LGBT awareness-raising activities – the year 8 students creating banners and displaying their messages around a local park; (They said, “No matter who we are, we are all human”. “Some people are gay. Get over it.”) A Year 7 student explaining how they had been working on Alan Turing, who was arrested for being gay in 1952, forced to take hormone tablets and committed suicide in 1954; The Head of PE presenting six members of the girls’ Rugby team and talking about how the school’s first LGBT week had led him to challenge stereotypes in sport.

Local Schools Network comments that this was a local community school at its absolute best. “It was a call to support all our students for who they are, and for all of us to be proud of who we are.” But it was all too much for Young, who compares the role of the PE teacher to that of a Chinese intellectual during the Cultural Revolution “who confessed in order to avoid being carted off to re-education camps”.

The fact that Toby Young was able to make such a caricature (in the right-wing press: and of all those involved in promoting diversity at Stoke Newington School, without actually ever visiting the school, experienced the curricular and extra-curricular activities of LGBT, spoken to staff or students, is the evidence of how the privileged who are able to form public opinions and shape policies are actually totally out of touch. They do so with experience completely detached from the tradition of diversity in our working-class communities.

Annie Gammon, Headteacher of Stoke Newington School said: “I am proud that the students and staff and parents and governors at Stoke Newington School are standing up for diversity…Morally, every member of society has a responsibility to tackle unfair discrimination: the students at Stoke Newington are learning to do exactly that. They are learning, alongside and through all the National Curriculum subjects, why discrimination is wrong and how to tackle it.”

“One way in which we tackle prejudice is to celebrate achievements of people from groups who have faced discrimination and misjudgements in the past. At Stoke Newington School we do this for several groups including women, black, Turkish, disabled and LGBT groups.”

The school organises several creative days each year – this year these include a maths and science day, a black history and art and textiles day, a media day and our LGBT/art day. Gail Bristow, a parent, said that it’s been the school policy for years to raise awareness of diversity. “This is very much what we’re used to in Hackney. Toby Young lives in a different community. I wonder why he hasn’t moved on from his “how to lose friends and alienate people” ethos...Our community in Hackney is an ethnically and sexually diverse community. Our children don’t grow up bigoted…My seven-year-old has many gay friends.”

Another parent, Caroline Millar, said: “It’s great that the children are learning to recognise and appreciate differences. It is fantastic that my teenage daughters are being taught in a place that values diversity. I’m in favour having some themed teaching…and awareness-raising integrated into the curriculum…Children need to be made aware of diversity, including sexual differences and need to learn to respect these differences. How can you really understand what you are studying if you can’t discuss the fact that an artist is gay or a musician is Chinese?”

Allan Beavis, a parent, said: “The day of the LGBT learning was spent informing children of experiences, personalities and ideas directly relevant to the understanding of those subjects Toby singles out – French, English Literature, History. The work is integrated into lessons…As a parent of a child at Stoke Newington School, I am confident that our children will not be excluded because of their class, race, sexuality and ability.”

“The school has therefore encouraged children’s minds to the possibilities and diversities of life outside the confines of their parents’ or carers’ examples and expectations… State schools are helping to raise a generation of kids to become broadminded and less accepting of any type of prejudice…”

Toby Young’s offensive comments mean that “his suitability to be involved at the highest level in the education of children has to be called into question”, say the parents. Beavis said: “None of this would be particularly important if he were just a media whore or a poster boy for the Tory Party but he is someone who is leading the mission to set up a school and, as such, will have moral and legal responsibilities towards children.”

“One therefore wonders how safe LGBT children or staff can possibly feel at his West London Free School now that he has gone on record with these opinions and distortions… It is worrying because this founder of West London Free School ridiculed the purpose of LGBT at Stoke Newington School, seemingly unaware that, by law, schools (including his own) must ensure that they deliver a rounded and varied education including not just the academic curriculum but the PSHCE topics such as LGBT awareness.”

Despite the attacks, the tradition of diversity will carry on. Henry Stewart, the Chair of Governors at Stoke Newington School, said: “The LGBT awareness-raising has contributed to challenging prejudices and stopping bullying at schools. I have read that as many as 98% of children in this country use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. My kids tell me it doesn’t happen at Stoke Newington School. It’s also important to recognise the legal responsibilities of a school and I don’t know if Toby Young has thought that through yet.”

--- Hsiao-Hung Pai works as a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian and the British-Chinese press. She has also written for Feminist Review and Open Democracy, among others.


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  2. Here is more information about the work we do at Stoke Newington School: