The Church of England does have a role to play in tackling all forms of discrimination in society and that includes in their schools. Currently there are 4,664 Church of England primary and secondary schools in England and 200 church schools in Wales. Approximately 1 million children attend church schools in England and Wales (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/education-and-schools/church-schools-and-academies). Setting a good moral example for children and young people to follow is one of the most important duties that educational professionals have and it is one that should be taken seriously. The Church of England has realised that in some cases, this duty has not been fulfilled correctly, especially in relation to discrimination against people who happen to LGBTQIA+ (students, staff, parents, family members, neighbours and strangers). Unfortunately, evidence has shown that discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people within schools still remains commonplace, especially against trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender people (see the Stonewall School Report for more information). So I am very pleased to see the Church of England taking a firmer stance against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, one which focuses on trying to follow Jesus' example and remembering that the Bible tells us that everyone has been made in the Image of God.
In order to help students and staff in Church of England schools tackle existing discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students and staff, the Church of England has issued detailed updated guidance (entitled Valuing All God's Children: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/Valuing%20All%20God%27s%20Children%27s%20Report_0.pdf). In the introductory section, it is made explicitly clear that staff and students should remember that according to Christian theology, there is "the truth that every single one of us is made in the Image of God" and that their love for us is unconditional (I'm someone who believes God is neither male nor female and does not conform to any gender stereotypes that might exist on Earth because they are beyond our human comprehension. God may know everything (he is Omniscient) including our little White lies but he also happens to be Omnibenevolent too). Church school staff need to remember that the virtues of compassion, tolerance and respect should be valued and put into practice wherever possible because there should be a desire to try and love unconditionally wherever possible. This includes making LGBTQIA+ students aware of their "intrinsic value" whilst also celebrating their collective humanity in a joyful manner.
Valuing All God's Children is an extremely well-research document, drawing on a number of recent studies to paint a picture of the current situation facing LGBTQIA+ students in schools, including the Stonewall School Survey 2017. The findings and recommendations contained within that survey should certainly be taken on board and I recommend anyone with the time accesses the document and familiarizes themselves with the key figures. One of the most shocking statistics (and noted in the Valuing God's Children guidance is that "9% of trans young people are subjected to death threats at school". No young person should ever receive a death threat, whether made face-to-face, on paper or on social media made by their peers or by anyone else for that matter. It needs to be made clear in RE lessons and PSHE lessons that such actions will not be tolerated and a strong disciplinary procedure should be in place in every school that gives staff a framework to follow in the event that a LGBTQIA+ student (or their friend/peer) informs them a death threat has been made against them (or their friend/peer). Another statistic that is important to pull out from the Stonewall School Survey that relates directly to faith schools is that students attending faith schools are "less likely to report that their school says homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying (HBT) is wrong". There may be staff members who will say they do not know what might constitute HBT bullying; one staff member may think it's OK for students to misgender a student who has socially transitioned based on their own belief that "there are 2 genders" or simply that misgendering doesn't constitute a serious enough offence for them to take corrective action. As the guidance notes: "HBT language....can often be considered as casual and it is therefore often dismissed as "harmless banter". It should be made crystal clear that misgendering is a form of bullying, especially if it occurs deliberately and regularly as a way of mocking a child to try and get them to "conform" whilst in the classroom. I agree with the view put forward in the Valuing All God's Children guidance that schools need to denounce any form of HBT language that occurs in the classroom to send a consistent message to students that use of such language will not be tolerated socially and contravenes Christian values. In order to help staff implement this zero-tolerance approach to HBT language and bullying successfully, schools should "develop an "agreed school script"" telling them "how to address issues of bullying and the misuse of language to infer derogatory status to LGBT people" (p8). Updating the anti-bullying policy, equality policy and safeguarding policies so that they make explicit reference to no tolerance of HBT bullying is important and staff should be made aware of such policies and the "agreed school script" through Continuing Professional Development sessions (for existing staff) and embedded into the induction period schedule for new staff members.
The Church of England's Valuing All God's Children guidance needs to be seen as part of the overall strategy for a more inclusive and well-rounded educational programme for students in C of E schools. This is informed by a truly Christian vision "with the promise by Jesus of "life in all its fullness" (John 10:10) at its heart. For students to follow this vision, they should remember four key words:
- Wisdom: when students learn about the harmful nature of bullying, including HBT bullying, they are more likely to want to learn techniques to protect themselves and others from HBT bullying and instead value "their own uniqueness and the uniqueness of others" (p10). Students should be taught about the "legal context of people's rights" in the UK (that must include the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in addition to the Equality Act 2010) to prepare them for a productive adult life. Students should also be able to "discern when to stand up for justice" (p10), helping people who feel they are being devalued by society (through no fault of their own).
- Hope: Students in C of E schools should "have the hope of being free to be themselves" so they have a better chance of achieving their full potential. Students should be given an opportunity to "learn from their mistakes" and be forgiven for making those mistakes so there is a greater hope that the world will be a "more caring and peaceful" (p10) one in the future.
- Dignity: Students who are LGBTQIA+ should be specially and carefully protected and nurtured (in the same way Jesus cared for the marginalised and feared) by schools. LGBTQIA+ students should also be empowered to "live fulfilled, embodied lives" (p10) and celebrate the diversity of humanity.
- Community: Students should be reminded of the importance of being "neighbourly" and school staff should allow students to "explore their identity without fear of harm, judgement or being ostracized". At the same time, students who have made mistakes should "be allowed to falter, get things wrong and try again as they work out how to be in relationship with themselves and others". The C of E believes in a "community of compassion" which allows people to make mistakes and correct them with the help of staff and their peers (the definition of "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Hebrews 10:24).
The Valuing All God's Children guidance is progressive in the sense that it accepts that for many young people living in the UK today, "LGBT rights are a non-issue, just a matter of fact, a given". This is backed up by research; the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research in 2016 (measuring public attitudes around trans issues for the first time using a random probability survey) found that 61% of 18-24 answered that prejudice against trans people "is always wrong" but only 40% of those aged over 65 answered in that way but the difference reduces when taking into account the "always or mostly" option (76% of 18-24 and 64% of over 65s) when (http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39147/bsa34_moral_issues_final.pdf). Unfortunately, the research also indicated that only 40% of people believed that trans people should definately be employed as a police officer or primary school teacher and 21% of respondents stated that trans people should never become primary school teachers. Such research reveals the importance of schools, especially faith ones, to challenge transphobia and discrimination in primary as well as secondary schools to prepare young people for the reality of working life, when it will become more likely that they will meet trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender people.
The guidance makes reference to key legislation and Government duties that need to be followed by all schools regardless of their religious preference. It's great to see such information included in a clear and easily accessible manner, pointing out where such legislation has an impact on schools to tackle HBT bullying. For example, Part 6 of the Equality Act 2010 "which applies to all maintained schools and academies, makes it unlawful for the responsible body of a school to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil" in relation to the admissions process, access to the school curriculum or exclusion policy. This means that a Church of England school cannot refuse to admit a potential pupil on the basis of their self-declared sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation at the time (this will apply more to secondary schools) or the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of their parents. Equally a pupil cannot be excluded from school on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity. Quite clearly such examples of discrimination would not be acceptable in most schools, but faith schools need to be aware that parents can take that school to court over failure to adhere to the Equality Act.
Another aspect of the legal framework referred to in the guidance that should be highlighted is that teachers do have powers under the Education and Inspection Act 2006 to "discipline pupils for conduct that occurs at a time when the pupil is not on the school premises and is not under the lawful control or change of a member of the school's staff". These powers can only be enacted where it would be considered reasonable for the school to intervene "to regulate pupils' behaviour". HBT bullying incidents that occur on school or public transport, within the local area (particularly when pupils are still in their school uniform and thus representing the school) could be reported by the victim, friends, peers or concerned people for the school pastoral team to examine. In fact the guidance makes it clear that "any bullying outside school, which is then reported to school staff should be investigated and the appropriate action should be taken" (p15). Failing to do so could be seen as a failure of the school to safeguard LGBTQIA+ pupils' welfare and a tacit acceptance that staff do not see HBT bullying "as the school's problem" when pupils are not on school premises.
Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS):
All Anglican schools should aim towards putting in place policies and procedures to prevent incidents of prejudicial behaviour from occurring. This means taking on board the views of pupils themselves in the drafting of policies and procedures (certainly doable in secondary schools) and empowering students so they can take the lead "in challenging prejudicial behaviour and language" (p17). This could be achieved by appointing more young prefects/mentors who are LGBTQIA+ to school councils and making students aware of the anti-bullying policy (in an age appropriate way) so pupils themselves know how to identify instances of HBT bullying and language and know who and where to report to.
Practical measures (General):
- Headteachers should speak clearly about LGBTQIA+ equality and speak out against HBT bullying and language on a regular basis during morning assembly
- Teachers should speak clearly about LGBTQIA+ equality and about the school's zero-tolerance approach to HBT bullying in lessons
- Teachers and pastoral staff should be given training through Continuing Professional Development schemes to identify all instances of HBT bullying and language and be empowered to take appropriate action
- Teachers should be able to signpost LGBTQIA+ pupils appropriately so they can receive tailored support (either from trained colleagues within the school pastoral team or from professional organisations such as Mermaids and Stonewall)
- Headteachers and teachers should ensure that the school curriculum being delivered is inclusive and allows for ample opportunity to address sexuality, gender, gender identity, gender expression and other LGBTQIA+ issues in an age-appropriate manner; this will help create a "culture of respect towards LGBT pupils and will actively contribute to the prevention of HBT bullying" (p18)
- Schools should look at participating in events including LGBT Month and Trans Day of Remembrance.
- Teachers should allow children to explore gender through play: "play should be a hallmark of creative exploration". Opportunities must be provided where children can "explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision". I do agree with the guidance in that labels are not necessarily fixed but teachers, teaching assistants, pastoral staff and other school staff should avoid using pejorative language (don't label a child's behaviour as abnormal just because they are not fitting into traditional gender stereotyping)
- Teachers should be prepared to read gender diverse books in English lessons with students: I recommend Are You A Boy or Are You A Girl? by the extremely talented writer Sarah Savage and illustrator Fox Fisher who happen to be trans and trans non-binary respectively (the book introduces the character of Tiny who enjoys dressing up but doesn't want to tell family or friends that they are a boy or a girl and embraces themselves proudly) but there are other books too including I Am Jazz (based on the true story of trans teenager Jazz Jennings), Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship (where Teddy tells their friend Errol they want to live as Tilly (a girl teddy) and Errol accepts them for who they are) and All I Want to be is Me (an amazing book that celebrates the full diversity of the gender spectrum)
- Schools need to "promote an anti-bullying stance", including anti HBT bullying at all times in accordance with existing Anti-Bullying policies and procedures
- Teachers should address HBT language used in the classroom as soon as it arises (for example, explaining to a girl in an age-appropriate way that calling a pencil case gay is using the word gay in a flippant and inappropriate way and she should refrain from using the word in that context in the future).
- Secondary schools should be places where young people are allowed to explore their identity free from prejudice and discrimination
- Students should continue to "explore the prejudice and the harmful language of labelling and stereotype that can surround issues of sexual orientation and gender identity". This should happen not just within PSHE lessons but across the school curriculum, including in Religious Education
- Schools should embed LGBTQIA+ rights and topics within PSHE and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) especially so LGBTQIA+ students feel they are included and empowered and all students are aware of the fact that LGBTQIA+ people can lead happy and healthy live (e.g. they can get married). Introduce LGBTQIA+ role models to students and invite local LGBTQIA+ people to come into school and deliver talks/lessons on gender identity, the LGBTQIA+ rights movement etc
- PSHE should also be a lesson where gender stereotypes are tackled so that all students can develop a positive sense of gender identity. Students at Key Stage 3 should for example explore gender stereotyping in advertising and clothing and have discussions based on their understanding of gender stereotyping in the music industry or in sports.
- Teachers should that all students leave school aware of key equality legislation so they can be model citizens and workers in the future (bare minimum should be awareness of the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004)
- Schools should try to avoid Gender segregated activities wherever possible (except PE lessons where separation is typical for contact based sports)
- Schools should ensure that trans and non-binary students can access the facilities that best correspond with their gender identity so they feel safe and secure and reduce the likelihood of transphobic bullying and harassment
- Teachers should be able to signpost LGBTQIA+ students themselves to appropriate services if they need further information or need to talk to other people who are LGBTQIA+ whether local or nationally.
Christians have a duty to try and follow the teachings and actions of Jesus and his disciples as closely as possible; remember the importance of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): the Levite and the priest never demonstrated compassion towards the traveller who had been attacked and left for dead but a Samaritan, whose nation was despised by the Jews helped the man by cleaning his wounds, transported him to an inn and paid for his care out of his own expenses and was praised by Jesus for his compassion. Being compassionate and tolerant should come easily but too often Christians are amongst those who are too quick to cast the first stone and judge based on stereotypes, caricatures and stigma. Christians who are teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and members of the pastoral staff should be willing to empower LGBTQIA+ students to be themselves. The updated guidance from the Church of England is timely; it reinforces the need for robust Anti-Bullying Strategies, frank conversations on gender identity and sexual orientation with a variety of viewpoints being offered and, rather importantly, making it clear that LGBTQIA+ students are welcome to be part of the congregation and engage in collective worship. There are policy documents that can be reviewed, adapted and then adopted by Church of England schools and I especially approve of the Church of England's survey proposal to see whether the resource is being utilised effectively and "determine whether any additional resource is required to support dioceses and schools" (p.25). I hope that headteachers and school governors across the board audit their current policies and procedures and actively engage in making their school more LGBTQIA+ friendly, including redesigning the PSHE curriculum and preparing for the new RSE curriculum (if they do not currently have a comprehensive programme in place) . Not only will having a compassionate, open-minded school environment benefit LGBTQIA+ students but their peers too and prepare them for the reality of living a diverse, vibrant world, one they should not be afraid to explore for themselves.