Joanna Conway is a drama teacher but her words are real, not scripted. “When I was at school, we didn’t speak to teachers about it. It was seen as something we don’t discuss. And that really belittles someone.
“When someone says ‘well actually we don’t speak about that, that’s your thing to deal with’, it must be really hard as a pupil to hear that.”
Joanna works in a school that is blazing the trail in LGBT inclusion. Moffat Academy is the first in Dumfries and Galloway to claim an LGBT Schools Charter Mark at silver level, sending a message that diversity and fairness lie at the school’s heart.
The message is particularly relevant today, which has been deemed #PurpleFriday as part of LGBT History Month, which celebrates LGBT lives and culture.
The LGBT Charter Mark is awarded to education institutions that introduce policies for the inclusion of LGBT people and ensure that they are all valued, supported and treated fairly.
To earn it, schools must prove that they are taking steps to establish equality, such as introducing staff training programmes and anti-bullying practices, and enriching the curriculum with LGBT topics.
In Moffat, it was biology teacher Melanie Queen who got the ball rolling. After an ex-pupil drew her attention to a lack of support for LGBT young people, Melanie spoke to the headteacher and learned about LGBT Youth’s Charter Mark programme. The process was soon under way.
The first step was to evaluate the school’s existing support for LGBT people and pinpoint the weaknesses. Melanie says: “When we first looked at [the Charter Mark requirements], we thought it was quite scary because of all the benchmarks. But when we broke it down, we found that we were actually doing quite a lot of things already.”
Student involvement is a requisite for the Silver Mark, and Moffat was bursting with youthful enthusiasm. “A group of students actually came to me before I spoke to them, and they wanted to promote this in the school. So they had already highlighted that off their own back,” Melanie adds.
Eilidh Barn, a pupil at the academy, says her interest was sparked by an older friend who was struggling to accept and express his own sexual orientation. Since then, the school has gone a long way to make LGBT peeopl feel safe.
Eilidh says: “Throughout our school we know that there is always going to be somebody to talk to, which is great. And it’s not just one teacher, it’s nearly all of them. There is a lot of acceptance in our school, and that’s great.”
Reactions from the community weren’t unanimously positive, Eilidh recounts, with some of the pupils and parents expressing shock and disagreement. But in the programme they had learned to discuss, rather then prohibit, opinions – a lesson the teachers and the students put to use when faced with opposition.
“We would always listen to what they thought and tell them facts, which normally worked quite well, ” Eilidih adds.
Schools are full of young people going through the formative period of their life, and drama teacher Joanna believes staff have a unique possibility to help them. She says: “At a time in a kid’s life when they might actually realise that they maybe don’t identify as straight: that’s a crucial point where they might need some help.
“It is our job as teachers, and responsible adults in a pupil’s life, to be able to escort them in whatever they are going through.”
For more information about the Schools Charter programme and awards go here.