Dominic Arnall, the Chief Executive of Just Like Us, has spent a career tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Here he writes about the teacher’s role in providing positive messaging for SEND LGBT+ pupils.
• LGBT+ young people are twice as likely to be bullied and twice as likely to experience depression.
• There is a lack of effective resources suitable for discussing LGBT+ topics with pupils with SEND.
• If schools do not give positive messaging about being LGBT+, many young people will not hear positive messages about who they are at all.
Being LGBT+ and a pupil with SEND are often thought of as somehow incompatible, as if a young person is only allowed one protected characteristic at a time. This, of course, is not the case and we must not underestimate young people’s agency by assuming SEND pupils do not also benefit from LGBT+ inclusion in the classroom.
As Chief Executive of Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity I have led for the past two years, and previously during my work leading the LGBT+ education team at Stonewall, I have spent a large amount of my career talking about homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and with good reason. LGBT+ young people are still twice as likely as non-LGBT+ young people to be bullied, and twice as likely to experience depression.
Providing positive messaging
While some schools do a phenomenal job at supporting LGBT+ young people, half (48%) of pupils that responded to our recent research said that their school had given little to zero positive messaging about being LGBT+ in the last year. LGBT+ inclusion work does not happen simply through the passing of time and, if schools do not give positive messaging about being LGBT+, many young people will not hear positive messages about who they are at all. In some cases, they may come to associate their identity with a slur or insult.
It is tempting to put this inaction on the part of schools down to prejudice alone. After all, what other motivation could there be for not supporting students when data shows that support is what they desperately need? The truth is more complicated. This year, Just Like Us surveyed more than 500 teachers to find out what they needed from us as an organisation to support their LGBT+ students. The results were surprising.
Lack of LGBT+ inclusive resources
Contrary to the idea that school inaction was motivated by prejudice, it quickly became clear that a huge number of schools found that existing LGBT+ resources were not suitable for them. The research showed us that many teachers were desperate for LGBT+ inclusive resources. Many had scoured the internet, spending their own time and money looking for suitable resources and had found them lacking.
The confronting truth is that while homophobia, biphobia and transphobia have not gone away, we as LGBT+ groups have not done a good enough job at giving teachers what they need to support their LGBT+ pupils and, more broadly, to prepare all pupils for a life beyond school where LGBT+ people exist and thrive.
Students with SEND are underserved
Pupils with SEND are one of the key groups that have been underserved by LGBT+ organisations. Teachers have repeatedly told me that it’s extremely difficult to find effective resources suitable for discussing LGBT+ topics with pupils with SEND.
This is hardly surprising as, for the most part, they are not written with pupils with SEND in mind.
There is, of course, no evidence to suggest that pupils with SEND are less in need of LGBT+ inclusion though we have heard from our ambassadors (18 to 25-year-old LGBT+ volunteers) that sometimes their SEND need meant they were less likely to have their LGBT+ identity taken seriously. Anecdotally, this seems particularly true of trans young people.
Current LGBT+ school resources
For a long time LGBT+ school resources have been broadly the same. A dry lesson plan with a list of terminology, symbols and possibly flags. We’ve all seen it. Lessons are often written by people who did not train as teachers, without the expertise to ensure they are relevant to the rich diversity of young people that attend our schools.
The conclusion seems to be inescapable. While homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still issues for schools across the UK, an equal number are simply underserved by our sector. We have not been good enough at giving some schools what they need to get this right. SEND pupils deserve better.
One thing I have learned during my time in the equalities sector is that there are two main types of prejudice.
1. The first prejudice is overt, such as someone shouting something at you in the street, being banned from a service or refused access to a space because of your identity.
2. The second, covert, is less obvious. It can manifest through a sense that something is not for you because of who you are. They might not say it exactly, but the feeling is instantly identifiable. It might not be deliberate, in fact it often won’t be, but the impact can be just as severe.
This can be compounded by a lack of crossover in specialisms: the teachers with SEND experience might not necessarily be the teachers with LGBT+ experience.
It is this second kind of discrimination against students with SEND, and those that teach them, that we in the LGBT+ sector must be careful not to partake in.
Replicating good practice
I have come to believe that while it is still vital that we challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia wherever we see them, ensuring everyone has access to our work is just as important. For this reason, Just Like Us is going to spend the next five years ensuring that everyone has access to LGBT+ inclusive resources that meet their needs and the needs of their pupils. This means ensuring that our materials are appropriate for different learning styles, as well as listening to the needs of teachers with SEND specialisms and ensuring we give them what they need.
Just Like Us is looking for teachers with specialisms in LGBT+ and SEND so we can learn from your work and distribute throughout our networks. If this is you, please get in touch for a chat. As is so often the case with education, there are pockets of people doing amazing things on a local level, but this isn’t replicated as much as it should be.
It should not be controversial to suggest that pupils with SEND are just as likely to be LGBT+ as anyone else. What should be troubling us is that currently we are not meeting their needs.
About the author
Dominic Arnall is the Chief Executive of Just Like Us, which runs School Diversity Week and provides free LGBT+ inclusive resources including ready-to-go lesson plans. Sign up for access at www.justlikeus.org