There was a time, not so long ago, when the ethos and values espoused by independent schools tended to be far from inclusive. Bastions of muscular Christianity, such institutions tended to prepare young men for service in the military or the colonies. Emotional resilience and prowess on the rugger pitch were valued above all else. Some pupils thrived in such circumstances whilst others suffered great personal trauma. Of course, there was an intrinsic conceit in the notion that one could endeavour to develop a particular ‘type’ of person.
In his autobiography, Last Man Standing, Jack Straw describes in some detail the death of a fellow student at the grammar school that he attended in Essex. The student concerned was gay and took his own life in desperation. We have come a long way since the 1960s but many of us grew up in a world that was actively hostile to homosexuality.
Six months before I started secondary school, Margaret Thatcher’s government passed a series of laws, collectively designated as Clause 28. This prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in Schools. In effect, Clause 28 served to shut down all discussion of issues related to sexuality, as any form of meaningful education could be deemed ‘promotion’. It was a culturally regressive and blatantly homophobic piece of legislation that remained in place until the year 2000. Throughout this period, the issue was overtly politicised with agitators on both sides seeking to use the issue of human sexuality as leverage at the polls.
Those who have watched Channel Four’s ‘It’s a Sin’ or Netflix’s ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’ will have some knowledge of just how hard pressed the gay community was during the eighties. Beset by social intolerance, repressive legislation and the AIDS epidemic, 1980s Britain was a difficult time to grow up gay. An interesting but fairly depressing piece of social history is referenced in Revd Richard Coles’ autobiography, ‘Fathomless Riches, or How I went from Pop to Pulpit’. In 1983, he took part in a documentary called ‘Framed Youth’ which explored the views of young gay people living in London.
Still viewable on YouTube, it is a howl of despair against a society that was intolerant and had little interest in embracing those who did not adhere to heteronormative traditions. These youths were marginalised and only found compassion and acceptance in each other. Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ sums up the experience of many young gay men during the 1980s in just five depressing minutes of synthpop.
There was only one boy in my Sixth Form who was openly gay. I remember being utterly inspired by his courage given that, even in the mid-nineties, it was still a challenging time to be gay at School. He was a trailblazer in some regards and his actions made many of us think a little more deeply about love, acceptance and equality. Others quietly came out of the closet once they had entered the relative freedom of university. Sometimes one would hear back whispered comments about school friends coming out.
Each time this happened, it became apparent that they had most likely felt obliged to act a part when at School. Some confided in their parents whilst others felt obliged to live the most intimate part of their lives in the shadows. Familial expectations and society at large created a context where any expression of love or sexuality that was anything other than ‘straight’ was likely to be met with disapproval rather than acceptance.
In my first year at university, a friend of mine became very seriously ill and ended up receiving life-saving surgery in Addenbrookes Hospital. He suffered from a life-shortening condition and died in his early thirties. Throughout his time at university, he was supported by his partner Tom. The intolerant rhetoric that had been such a part of my social and educational landscape during my youth, looked remarkably ugly and mean-spirited when measured alongside the epic and fathomless love that my friend had for his partner. Indeed, even his medical issues appeared utterly diminished in comparison to such love.
Consequently, as my university years progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that we all have a role to play in creating a fairer and more equal society. Whilst a student in Dublin, I got to know, and felt privileged to count as a friend, Senator David Norris. In 1988, David had taken the Irish Government to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Ireland’s criminialisation of homosexuality. He won and the government was found to be in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Along the way, he dealt with death threats from the IRA and condemnation from the Catholic Church.
Now a much revered figure in the public life of the modern Irish state, he had, for much of his life, been considered to be an anti-establishment figure of subversion. Despite the advances that campaigners such as David had made, it was still the case that, in the early 2000s, young gay men walking the streets of Dublin late at night were liable to be beaten up if they were considered to have dressed too ‘flamboyantly’. There was one gay bar in a city of almost 1,000,000 people and perhaps meaningful change only really came about in 2015 when Ireland legalized gay marriage following a referendum in which 62% of the population voted in support of such a measure.
We have come a long way since my childhood and early adult years but those of us who lead schools should not rest until we can say with absolute confidence that all forms of intolerance (whether it be sexism, homophobia or racism) are consigned to the past. If my slant on this is personal, then it is unashamedly so.
The individuals of whom I write are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. They have parents who have experienced worry and anguish and they themselves have been encouraged to feel shame by those who have sought to deny their fundamental human rights. For any young person to feel tormented or ‘othered’ on account of their gender or sexuality constitutes a tragedy and a collective failing of society.
If there is one young person at Rossall who feels that this is not the place for them on account of such issues then we should feel a sense of collective shame. As parents, we should aspire for our children to grow up in a context which celebrates the unique value of every child, not just our own. Our children deserve to know that they will always be loved unconditionally and that their sexuality has no bearing on the strength of our love.
It is for these reasons that I am delighted to share with you the news that we are now working toward achieving the Rainbow Flag Award. The Rainbow Flag Award is a national quality assurance framework that focuses upon positive LGBT+ inclusion and visibility. It encourages a whole School approach to LGBT+ inclusion and develops strategies to effectively challenge and combat LGBTphobic bullying.
The Rainbow Flag initiative seeks to ensure that schools demonstrate real expertise in their approach LGBTQ+ issues in terms of ensuring the following:
- Skilled teachers
- Supportive governors and parents
- Effective policies
- Inclusive curriculum
- Pastoral support
- Student voice
In the fullness of time, we will run a parent workshop to discuss our involvement with the Rainbow Flag Award initiative. It is worth remembering, that whilst we may take advice from outside organisations, the age appropriateness, content and delivery of our PSHE lessons is determined by the School and we seek to fulfill our regulatory obligations whilst becoming an exemplar of best practice in all regards.
There are times when all institutions and communities should work with external partners to consider perspectives that might not be readily apparent, even with a critically reflective approach. We must never make assumptions about inclusivity and diversity. We must listen to our students and recognise that our own advancing years and cultural perspective limits our ability to understand what it means to grow up at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century.
As always, we would love to hear views and reflect upon the unique perspectives from all within our community as we seek to ensure that Rossall’s reputation for warmth, kindness and compassion embraces each and every member of our wonderful community without fail.
Headmaster of Rossall School