Flying the flag

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2021

ASCL’s LGBT Leaders’ Network is launching at a positive moment for equality, diversity and inclusion campaigners but there is much work still to do, says Rich Atterton.

It was the year that Rick Astley declared he was never gonna give you up, league champions Liverpool were beaten 1–0 by Wimbledon in the FA Cup Final and I was in my last year of primary school.

But 1988 was also the year that gave us Section 28, the amendment to the Local Government Act that stated a local authority should not:
  • intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality
  • promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship
Section 28 codified homophobia into law, reinforced the prevailing view that homosexuality was wrong and made schools a difficult and even unsafe place to teach for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. I began teaching in 2003, the year Section 28 was finally repealed. It was still unlikely you would meet an LGBT teacher who hadn’t thought through what they’d say if a pupil asked about their sexuality.

For many of us, the options were an outright ‘no’, a ‘none of your business’, a slightly flustered ‘that’s not an appropriate question’ or simply pretending you never heard the question in the first place. I have utilised all four.

I recently discussed with several colleagues the phrase flag waving as a reference to LGBT staff.

Was it internalised homophobia, a dismissive and somewhat pejorative slight against ‘activists’ or maybe a colloquialism to indicate the gap between those who are confident enough to attend Pride events, wear a rainbow lanyard at work or ultimately talk openly about who they are, and those who would rather not?

It strikes me that flags can be identity markers that say you belong, like that of a national flag, or a sign that could be hung above a door that says you don’t have to hide in here, you can be who you are, this place is safe.

But they can also be used as signals to show danger, indicate surrender or for celebration.

I concluded that every step towards equality, diversity and inclusion comes from a flag that is waved in some way: a positive recognition of someone LGBT is a waved flag, a rebuke for harmful language is a waved flag, that bold step of you being your authentic self in the work-place is a flag waved.

The challenge
Today, things have never been better in schools for LGBT staff and students, but they are far from where they need to be.

Former Australian rugby international Dan Palmer was born in 1988. At the end of last year, Dan ‘came out’; the Sydney Morning Herald carried the headline “my own death felt preferable to anyone discovering I was gay”.

Closer to home, Keegan Hirst – the first British rugby player to come out as gay – said he didn’t recognise himself as being brave: “I envied the lads who were brave enough to come out when they were at school… getting dished (beat) up at school for being honest about who they are.”

A 2019 report by Diversity Role Models, Pathways to LGBT+ Inclusion: Report. Homo-phobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools today, found that only less than a third of students thought it would be safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual plus (LGBT+) students to come out in school and just over half said homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic language was commonly heard in school.

During Justine Greening’s tenure as Equalities Minister and then Secretary of State for Education, equality, diversity and inclusion seemed high on the agenda, culminating in July 2018 with the government’s comprehensive LGBT action plan.

As relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools begin to kick in, there is an incredible opportunity for us all to recognise that LGBT young people exist, LGBT families exist, LGBT parents exist and LGBT staff exist.

Yet, despite this, the recent rise of influential parental choice groups; threats of – and actual – legal action; Minister Liz Truss expressing a desire to "pivot away from Race and Gender"; Minister Kemi Badenoch's speech in October in Parliament; and, the DfE oddly linking school guidance on “critical race theory, cancel culture and Black Lives Matter” to relationships/relationships and sex education. All of this threatens to turn classrooms into battlegrounds for the so-called culture wars.

The celebration
In December 2020, the first meeting of ASCL LGBT Leaders’ Network heard from school and college leaders about their own professional and personal contexts.

For some, diversity was hardwired into the DNA of the school, with staff at every level feeling comfortable enough to live ‘out’ lives, while, for others, personal and professional contexts presented more complex challenges.

I talked about the network with a colleague who was initially puzzled about the need for such a thing. Where she lived there are three openly gay headteachers and she had attended an open evening event where the head introduced himself as a gay man in his opening sentence.

Yes, things are getting better and one sign of this is the work of LGBTed. Its mission is “Let’s be the role models we needed when we were at school” and its new book, Big Gay Adventures in Education, has punctured the doom and gloom narrative with 24 unique and powerful accounts by ‘out’ teachers and students of ‘out’ teachers.

LGBTed has also launched a master’s degree in LGBT+ School Leadership in partnership with the National College of Education.

ASCL’s LGBT Leaders’ Network is working alongside the ASCL Ethnic Diversity Network and the ASCL Women Leaders' Network to:
  1. Use ASCL’s influence to effect structural change such as working with the National Governance Association to introduce equalities training for governors and trustees.
  2. Use the network of ASCL members to create informal coaching and mentoring support for those from protected characteristics to support their leadership journeys.
  3. Keep the visibility of our equalities, diversity and inclusion work strong via Leader, our website, Twitter, conference and professional development events and using our influence across the system.
We are all on a journey, some further along than others, but that’s OK. The truth is together we are strong, together we can achieve much, as writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa beautifully puts it – “individually we are one drop, together we are an ocean”.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
To join any of our leaders’ networks and for an invitation to the next meeting, please contact indicating the network you would like to join. Find out more at

Rich Atterton
Assistant Headteacher at Marlborough Science Academy in St Albans,
ASCL Council and Executive member and chair of the ASCL LGBT Leaders’ Network 

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