How I built a career in LGBT education

Elly Barnes has devoted her career to helping schools become environments in which LGBT students and teachers can thrive without fear of discrimination. She talks to Emily Drabble

I was brought up in a field in the middle of nowhere. I went to a rural secondary school in Leicestershire, Market Bosworth High School. No one ever talked about lesbians, in fact I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word. When I was growing up I had relationships with girls and really always had a girlfriend but they were never classed as such. When we got to about 14 and my friends starting having closer relationships with boys and comparing notes about ‘how far’ they got. I thought, okay I’m supposed to do this stuff with boys. So I had boyfriends too, but I always had girlfriends on the side. We didn’t have the internet or mobiles, and there was nothing on TV about this, so we had to learn about every issue by word of mouth. There was no awareness of LGBT issues and there seemed to be no lesbians around at all – with the exception of Martina Navratilova.

I did my degree in music specialising in opera at Birmingham Conservatoire. While I was doing my degree I taught singing and piano to members of the public of all ages from children needing to pass their grade exams to a dad who wanted to learn Love Changes Everything to sing at his daughter’s wedding, so I was already teaching before I did my PGCE.

After my degree I did a part-time MA in music and philosophy. While I was doing that I got a job with Sculpture Theatre Company in Birmingham which specialised in theatre in education. We did hilarious plays with ridiculous costumes. I remember playing a huge nose with pink bogeys snorting out of it. It was on the back of that I got used to being with the kids and noticed how receptive children were, so it was a natural progression for me to do my PGCE at Birmingham. Also my girlfriend at the time was a bit younger than me and still doing her degree so I wanted to stay in the city for another year.

I did my NQT year at The Barclay School in Stevenage. Then, after a year as a peripatetic music teacher, I got a job at Stoke Newington School in London. I became more and more interested in education beyond music and about the needs of children so when I got the job as head of year in 2005, I was really excited to be able to make a difference.

I’d seen the boundaries to learning and I was really interested in the kids that stayed behind for a chat after lessons who needed help. I worked with a wonderful learning mentor Jo Smyth who really set me on the right path and taught me so much about incredible ways to get a child learning and especially how to work with families.

I was out to the staff at school and if anyone ever asked me I’d tell them straight that I was a lesbian. When I became head of year we decided to celebrate LGBT history month in school for the first time. My mission was to eradicate homophobic language and challenge young people’s perceptions of LGBT people. This was in February 2005 and LGBT history month had only been born the year before. Don’t forget that section 28 which banned teachers from talking about gay issues or same sex parenting was only repealed in 2003.

My tutor team were exceptionally supportive. The IT teacher did a lesson on Alan Turing, the maths teacher did an LGBT powerpoint looking at the numbers involved in LGBT bullying, and of course we looked at LGBT issues in music, my subject. All the teachers got involved and that was the start of an amazing LGBT journey.

I’ve seen the huge benefits of LGBT awareness and I actually enjoy those ever so difficult conversations that other people will try to avoid. I’ve seen how the work really is changing lives. Just one example is an ex-pupil of mine at Stoke Newington. Scott is an adult now but at school he was homophobically bullied. He wasn’t out, but being bullied because he was perceived to be gay. My experience is once a young person has come out things get a lot better. He decided to out himself in front of a thousand kids, singing An Easier Affair by George Michael and got a standing ovation. He took the power back with that move and that’s what bullying is so often about. Eight kids came out in my year and not one was bullied over it. They all stay in touch with me now they tell me how homophobic their colleges are.

I learnt everything I now advise other teachers to do through trial and error. I’ve sat through enough Inset days to know this has to come from grass roots level. I ask teachers to think about the lesson they’re teaching tomorrow and how they can expand it to include an LGBT element, and to do that for every lesson. You can’t suddenly make your school LGBT friendly. Sex and relationship education policies and equal education policies might need a tweak but it’s in the classroom and through the entire curriculum that schools really make an impact. If LGBT people are invisible in the classroom, then it’s never going to work. What young people say has to be constantly challenged. After a while you find young people start correcting each other if they make homophobic comments, because they understand why it is wrong.

I always compare the situation now to racism 40 years ago. We had Love thy Neighbour on TV and people said incredibly racist things all the time. LGBT awareness is the new kid on the block.

I stopped teaching music just two months ago to focus on my teacher training programme Educate and Celebrate and since September 2012 I’ve been the LGBT schools advisor for Birmingham City council.

LGBT awareness issues really are kicking ass now, but there’s still a long way to go. I get emails every day from teachers who are unable to come out at their schools, where kids speak to each other in a derogatory fashion. This drive in me to change things won’t go away until we have happy out teachers, students and parents and that’s not the case now in 2013. That LGBT project in 2005 has changed my life in the most positive way you can imagine, it’s like I’ve trained myself to do the job I’m doing now.

Elly’s top resources

Elements of disco PowerPoint

Elements of disco lesson plan

These resources use a track from the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert to explore the varied elements of disco music, allowing learners to find a definition of trans.

All London schools are invited to present their LGBT work and join in the fun at the London Schools LGBT Showcase on 28 February 2013 at Arsenal’s Emirates Ground. Find out more details here.

Elly is the LGBT schools advisor for Birmingham City Council and heads up the programme Educate and Celebrate. She is the equality and diversity Lead at Stoke Newington School and a freelance diversity trainer. She also volunteers as the National Schools rep for LGBT History month and SchoolsOUT. Find out more about Elly’s work here. Elly is doing an MA in school based explorations at Goldsmiths University where she has been a teacher trainer for the last four years.

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