Developing an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Curriculum

Siobhan Hardy

I remember sitting in a GCSE English lesson one afternoon. The classroom was hot and stuffy and most of the class was restless but English was my favourite lesson and we were studying poetry so, in my mind, if I had to be in school, this lesson was where I wanted to be.

By this time, I knew I was gay but was still unwilling to admit it, even to myself. It would be years before I dared tell anyone else.

The teacher asked us to turn to page 33 of the GCSE poetry anthology, where we came across ‘Anne Hathaway’ by Carol Ann Duffy. As a bit of a poetry geek, I’d already read all of the poems in the collection, and had enjoyed Duffy’s use of imagery and the fondness with which the speaker reminisced about her ‘living laughing love’. I didn’t, at this point, know anything about Duffy herself but was nonetheless excited to explore the sonnet in class.

Almost immediately, people began commenting and whispering, until someone finally called out: ‘Errr Miss – isn’t Carol Ann Duffy a lesbian?!’ Cue a chorus of laughter and comments about how disgusting that was and how we shouldn’t be studying the work of someone ‘like that’ in school. 

Immediately, the teacher told everyone to be quiet and behave. No sanctions were handed out and there was no discussion of homophobia or challenging of stereotypes.

(I would like to add at this point that the teacher in question was one of the most passionate, intelligent and engaging teachers I ever had and her lessons were a key factor in why I decided to become an English teacher myself. But this was only a few short years after Section 28 was repealed and challenging homophobic language just wasn’t done. In my experience of school, the best you could hope for, as in this case, was for the member of staff to quieten everyone down and move the conversation on).

In spite of the reaction from my peers (who later went on to graffiti a poster of Duffy with homophobic slurs and gleefully continued calling anything and anyone they didn’t like ‘so gay’), it’s hard to explain how important that tiny fragment of representation was to me. Suddenly, I could see a way out. Here was a woman who not only liked other women but had been brave enough to come out, raise a child, have a partner and make a career from writing poetry. Meanwhile, I didn’t even dare say the word ‘lesbian’ in case anyone thought I was one. 

Knowing that someone like me was ‘good enough’ or ‘worthy enough’ to be part of the school curriculum meant the world to me but I am under no illusion that it was anything but a happy accident. Duffy’s work was there in spite of her being a lesbian, not because she’s an excellent poet whose inclusion in the anthology could have sparked important, meaningful conversations about LGBTQ+ issues. (Note that the speaker in the poem we were studying was a heterosexual woman talking about her love for her husband).

It’s now almost 15 years later and, despite the government’s recent decision to withdraw funding for LGBTQ+ anti-bullying programmes, there are plenty of resources and support out there for schools who want to champion the rights and identities of all of their pupils. In fact, from September 2020, secondary schools have a statutory duty to deliver Relationships, Health and Sex Education (RHSE) which is inclusive of LGBTQ+ issues (more info, including on RHSE in primary schools, here).

One of the biggest barriers expressed by LGBTQ+ staff who want to develop an inclusive curriculum in their schools is the sense that they are alone in wanting to do so. It is crucial, therefore, that school leaders and governing bodies make it clear to staff that they are supported and their ideas are welcomed, whether that is through CPD, LGBTQ+ inclusion pledges or changes to policy, etc. School leaders who are interested may wish to contact LGBTed for support with this.

Another barrier is simply not knowing where to start. With that in mind, here are some ideas you may wish to consider:

RHSE

As mentioned above, the DfE have issued guidance that RHSE “should include age-appropriate teaching about different types of relationships in the context of the law” and Ofsted have stated that they will be looking at schools’ readiness to comply with the guidance from January 2021.

Therefore, schools need to invest in staff training and reviews of current policies and the pastoral curriculum. This might seem a daunting prospect, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but it is one that can have a profoundly positive impact on the school community.

In addition, student voice can be an important and powerful part of this process so I would highly recommend that schools ask for students’ ideas and opinions.

Embedding positive representation into lessons

One of the simplest approaches is including a more diverse range of authors, theorists, characters and role models into lessons that are not specifically focused on LGBTQ+ issues.

Of course, the classic argument is that it’s far easier to address this in an English, history or sociology lesson than it is a maths or science one. But in any class, there are so many minute changes that you can introduce which have a huge impact, whether that’s talking about an expert in the field who happens to be part of the LGBTQ+ community or referring to a family with two dads while solving a maths problem (‘James and Kai were going to pick up their daughter. James was travelling 2km by car at an average speed of 20kmph while Kai was travelling 1km by bicycle…’ – you get the idea).

Workshops

The two charities I’ve worked most frequently with over the years are Diversity Role Models and Stonewall – I highly recommend getting in touch with them. Both organisations offer a wealth of ways in which schools can work with them, from student workshops to resources to CPD.

Typically, schools rush to book these charities around February as it’s LGBT History Month but don’t feel like you have to wait for then. LGBTQ+ inclusion should happen all year round!

Extra-curricular clubs 

Some schools run these as a wider ‘Equality and Diversity Group’ while others choose to focus specifically on the area of LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

At one school, a colleague and I set up a lunchtime drop in session which the students voted to name ‘Pride Club’. Over the years we had a core group of approximately 10 students who attended the club most weeks and delivered assemblies, led projects and ran sessions, etc. There were also many more who attended occasionally, just out of general interest, in support of a friend or because something had happened in the news which they wanted to discuss. I will admit there were also those who definitely just turned up for the biscuits, but, as long as students were treating each other with kindness and respect, we felt it was important that ‘Pride Club’ was open to everyone.

In order to launch the club, we delivered assemblies and advertised with posters around the school. Within a couple of weeks of deciding to go ahead, we were up and running. As with any of these suggestions, it’s surprisingly simple to get set up and even easier if you can get the support of a couple of colleagues first.

Conclusion

I’ve heard each and every one of these approaches dismissed as tokenism before. Of course, a significant amount of work needs to be done by schools to ensure that all students receive an education which recognises and celebrates who they are. However, the inclusion of Carol Ann Duffy on the old GCSE syllabus was transformational for me and I’m sure there are many in the LGBTQ+ community who have similar stories of the time they saw a glimpse of themselves reflected in what they were learning at school and the impact that it had.

We have to start somewhere and even small steps can go a long way to normalising LGBTQ+ people in the eyes of students, staff and the wider community, the power of which cannot be underestimated.

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