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EXCLUSIVE: Pink List honoree Elly Barnes

School teacher Elly Barnes tells DIVA about the anti-homophobia work that got her to the top spot on this year's Independent on Sunday Pink List

Wed, 26 Oct 2011 16:01:53 GMT | Updated 5 years today

It was a real shock when I discovered I'd got the top spot on the Pink List. I wholeheartedly accept it as recognition of all the tireless work teachers do in schools up and down the country to implement diversity work into the curriculum to change hearts and minds. It feels wonderful that recognition has been given to those of us who work at grassroots level and are fighting every day in classrooms and schools to achieve equality and change outdated opinions. It was exceptionally emotional to find out that it was my students who had voted and thanked me for making their lives so much easier in school.   


I think the momentum has been building over the last year since I opened my school as a Diversity Training Centre for Teachers in September 2010, it stirred up a significant amount of media attention and then was recognised by Ofsted as a centre of best practice for successfully challenging homophobic bullying.


These acknowledgements have reinforced my total belief in what I do in that it is a) needed, b) recognised and c) is changing staff and students' lives. I have been building, developing, refining and experimenting with this initiative since 2005, consistently trying to find the best and most positive ways in which to change opinion effectively. I am at a point where I feel confident in my approach and now need more headteachers to bring it to the forefront of their agendas.


I am very keen to dispel the myth that LGBT inclusion in the curriculum causes more work for teachers, in fact what I found was that the LGBT content was already there, we were just not emphasising the "LGBTness" of our projects. For instance the

Humanities department were studying the treatment of the Jewish people in the prisoner of war camps, so we extended the project to include the treatment of LGBT people. The Music department were performing the songs of Joan Armatrading but not highlighting the fact she was a black lesbian singer/songwriter. Art were already studying Keith Haring, Grayson Perry and Frida Kahlo, who all fit perfectly in to our LGBT history month model each February.


My method is not to confront students with LGBT issues but to seep LGBT people into their consciousness through inclusive lesson plans along with simply giving young people the facts. For instance I explain what the words Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender mean along with explaining the laws. Another example is when I teach my Disco unit, my starter activity is to play them a clip from Priscilla Queen of the Dessert where the drag queens (one of whom is transgender) sing 'I will survive' in the dessert to the indigenous people. Tried and tested resources can be found on the Schools Out classroom website.


Current school and government policies give us the legal framework for our diversity work. Many of the teachers I train feel relief when we read these policies as they have faced adversity in their own schools and have not been supported by their School Leadership Team. Some teachers are being bullied by other members of staff, some are being bullied by students. One teacher recently told me that her Head of Year advised her against LGBT work, since Section 28 has made it illegal! [Section 28 was repealed in November 2003] So we have to remember lots of schools are not progressive and have dinosaurs in them with no idea about current policy!


The main judges of our success, of course, are our young people. Their honesty is a marker of success. It is lovely to hear students say that they are not going to use the word gay in the wrong context anymore. Once the students are given an open forum to talk about LGBT issues there is soon a plethora of hands in the air saying 'my auntie is a lesbian!' or 'my uncle wears dresses!' We must remember that most students have LGBT relatives and indeed same-sex parents.


The LGBT initiative is a rolling annual program, a continuing process and the work never stops. Already this term I had a year 7 student ask me why I had the word 'Gay' on my wall. He told me it was dirty and that everyone hated the gays - so my reaction was to go grab a couple of year 9 boys I had in detention to talk to him - they did such a good job of putting him in the picture that I let them go early! Once the new year 7 cohort are exposed to LGBT history month in February, their opinions change positively. 


I believe the way forward is to continue on the path of liaising with as many organisations as possible to infiltrate the education system as a whole to make the positive changes throughout all tiers. A fear of mine is the recent rise of free schools and academies who are allowed an open curriculum not bound by the same policies as our state schools.


Through hard work and demonstrating consistency all schools can reap the benefits of happy "out" staff and "out" students who are NOT bullied. Celebrating LGBT History Month through the curriculum engages and educates staff, students and parents and in turn decreases homophobic bullying statistics. It is essential that our schools curriculum reflects the community we live in; LGBT people are part of our community.


All schools have a duty to protect young people - so lets all 'Educate and Celebrate!'


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