Every now and then, within the broader sphere of Education, you can sense that you are at the embryonic stages of a positive shift in culture and policy; there’s a renewed enthusiasm for wanting to take part and wanting to be a part of that change; for believing it might be worth it.
This is where we are now when we talk about Equalities in Education in Northern Ireland. At the moment, we have 2 key research publications on issues of equality. Firstly, we have the recent NEU study into sexism in schools in England. Whilst the survey did not extend to Northern Ireland, its results show that there are gender stereotypes and sexism in schools. And secondly, we have the belatedly published research by the Department of Education into the experiences of LGBT young people which show that they are being marginalised in many schools.
The issues raised offers us the chance to seize an opportunity to create our own research that might influence change, through a member’s equalities survey.
Statistics coming out of the English report are stark; 37% of female students experienced some form of sexual harassment, 24% subjected to unwanted physical contact.
The following quotations are taken from the report:
"I felt embarrassed about it and wanted to pretend the situations didn’t happen."
“It’s easier to just laugh it off or else you get teased for making a fuss and say it must be her hormones."
“It’s just something that happens no matter how much we don’t like it.”
As a feminist, to my shame, if someone had asked me if I thought an equalities survey in Northern Ireland into sexism was necessary, my response would have been a lukewarm "kind of… wouldn’t do any harm - but to be honest, it’s not really like that here." However, I was wrong. Would it surprise you if I told you that only one out of the three quotations I cited just now are from the actual research published? The rest are just a small snap shot from the young people I spoke to here in Northern Ireland after reading the report. Yet they don’t look out of place alongside each other.
The report also addresses gender stereotyping and its impact on young people both emotionally as well as educationally. Economically, this is deemed to have the most serious impact on girls who tend to avoid ‘boys’ subjects such as science and maths therefore restricting their access to some of the higher paid professions.
However, gender stereotyping was also revealed to have a significant impact on boys.
Boys revealed that they get teased if they join the school choir, the drama group or increasingly, taking Arts subjects “girls subjects” such as English Literature through to A level. As an English teacher with a love of music, I found that to be a much more depressing reality. To think, that because of a culture of gender stereotyping we are denying so many young boys the opportunity to develop self-expression, to play a musical instrument for an hour on a wet Sunday long after you have left school; to lose yourself and even sometimes find yourself in a novel. Potentially, they may end up richer than the girls, but so much less enriched.
But despite the depressing reality of the findings, we have come a long way - a far enough way that the results of an equalities survey here would have potential to create a collective willingness, to break unchallenged silences around sexism in schools.
The other area for much needed change, in terms of Equalities, comes with the findings of the NI Education Authority’s research into the experiences of LGBT pupils – another area we need to include in creating, through independent sources, a comprehensive members survey. And for some, this is a thornier issue.
Generally speaking, there is, conceptually at least, a cultural consensus that sexism is wrong. However, there is not the same cultural consensus around LGBT issues in NI.
At the moment, in the main, I think that the whole issue of sexual and gender identity in Northern Ireland, still sits precariously somewhere between the realms of private and public. We aren’t comfortable talking openly about sexual or gender identity: We haven’t ‘come out’ as a society. But, to ensure that our young people have equality, we are going to have to ‘come out’ and address the reality of the experiences of LGBT young people in our schools.
I teach in a school where we have a transgender 6th form pupil. I won’t use her real name, but she left as Conor in June last year, came back as Julie in September. She now wears a girls’ uniform and was assigned a gender-neutral toilet. It was a brave move for a quiet, normally shy pupil in a what is sometimes perceived as traditional Grammar school, yet a school that prides itself in its culture of equality.
However, although there exists a culture of equality where I teach, like many schools, within that quiet presumption of equality, emerging issues can become underdiscussed. In my case the news was greeted with nods and silence. Not an awkward silence, or a stunned silence, or a judgemental silence. Just a silence – a silence that reflected a quietly assumed and trusted culture of equality. But, on reflection, it was a silence that also signified a wider reality that as educators, we don’t know how to help with these emerging issues for our pupils.
Now, on reflection, I wonder, why, as a staff, it didn’t occur to us to wonder about Julie’s journey. Was her journey painful? Why had she just announced it to a teacher on the last day of the school year in June?
Regardless of the likely reluctance to be open with her family, why had Julie not been able to talk to a teacher about her struggles in the 6 years she had been a member of our school community? After reading the Education Authority report, I found myself wondering how many more pupils’ suffering is hidden, in plain sight, in our schools. How many are being homophobically bullied? How many can’t bring themselves to be as brave as Julie?
I am part of that staff who sat in silence, who was happy to quietly assume that of course, as a school that embraced equality, there wasn’t a problem. But this was one of our pupils – a living breathing human being. Why did it take reading the findings of the report into LGBT issues for me to start to wonder? I think it’s because, as I said, sexual and gender identity still sits somewhere in the sphere of the private arena but in groups of educators across Northern Ireland from a range of different backgrounds, there is not the same incentive to have open discussion. And therein lies the problem. And therein lies the sadness. Julie was supported, openly accepted, embraced by the school community, treated and valued as equal. But in many schools where there is a similar presumption of equality, a belief that such issues neither need to be paraded or hidden, often young people can shy away from seeking help or support.
And I realised too that I didn’t wonder about Julie or LBGT issues of equality at the time because I didn’t see Julie. I saw an issue of gender identity. I saw a girl’s uniform. I didn’t judge her, But I lost sight of her humanity; and in losing sight of the humanity behind issues of sexual identity, as educators, we lose the opportunity to create true equality in how our young people experience school life.
It was the word ‘isolated’ which kept appearing in the Education Authority’s research that resonated with me.
The loneliness of the 25% of LGBT pupils who had isolated themselves by never having felt able to discuss their sexual orientation with anyone in school. The loneliness of those who did, but who were then bullied isolated and marginalised by others. In terms of ensuring equality of experience, LBGT issues are not about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans gender. That’s the package it comes in which we do need a tool kit for to be able to deal with meaningfully. But fundamentally, like any other issue of equality, it is about our duty of care to recognise each other’s humanity
Which brings me to my point in the motion about our condemnation of the suppression and delayed publishing of the Education Authority’s findings. And I do think, given the experiences the report contained, we should condemn it. But we also need to try to understand, why there was an attempt to repress the findings. Those with deeply held religious beliefs in our society may fear that by recognising and embracing equality provision for LGBT pupils, they may appear to condone certain behaviours, which in turn, may present a threat to their personal and social identity. And for those in our LBGT community who understandably feel a burning sense of pride, naturally feel they need to shout out louder to be heard; for those people, there can be a tendency too to judge people who hold more conservative positions around sexual identity, to view them as backward, unenlightened, repressed etc…
So, yes, we condemn attempts to repress the report’s findings, but in seeking to understand the motivating factor behind entrenched positions on both sides of LBGT issues, NEU as a Union, I believe, are saying that those positions need to stay firmly within that political arena. In delaying the report’s findings, we condemn the fact that the political strayed into the sphere of educational.
In terms of education we need to ensure that we rise above that political arena. We need to lead the way for change through our own surveys and research, because our schools must be recognised as shared cultural spaces.
There is something wrong when the majority of our schools fail to an incentive to have open discussion on how these issues may have an impact on our pupils. There’s something wrong when an Education Authority produces a comprehensive piece of research costing over £28,000 and then nothing happens. There’s something wrong when there are attempts for such information to be actively silenced.
It was Heaney who said, “When you have the words there is always the chance that you will find the way.”
As educators we need to begin by finding a language that gives us a tool kit to help educate young people around both sexism and LBGT issues.
But at its core, and this is why commissioning an Equalities Survey is so important, these are issues about bullying, isolation, and the silent secrecy of shame. And that’s, I think, where the conversation begins; that’s where we begin find the words, and in doing so, follow leading examples such as Shimna College and its Gay-straight-Alliance project, and start to find the way. It’s about a common humanity, the right to self-identity, the right to not be discriminated against because of that identity or because of sexism or gender stereotyping. And, for me, more importantly than anything else, in a system where our schools are teeming with several hundred young people at any one time, this motion is important because it is about a move towards making sure that no child is ever left to feel lonely in a crowd.