Monday, 13 June 2016

Keynote Speech for School Revision: Trans Inclusion in Education

This speech was given during the opening session of School Revision: Trans Inclusion in Education on Saturday 11 June at Larkhall School in Lambeth.

Hello everyone, my name is Bridget Chapman. I’m the Assistant Branch Secretary of the Lambeth branch of the National Union of Teachers, and I’m extremely proud and honoured to welcome you all here today to Lambeth, to School Revision, and to a glimpse of what the inclusive school of the future might look like.

I’m delighted to see that the audience today is so diverse and I am particularly delighted that a number of students are here. I apologise to them if what I am about to say is slightly teacher-focused.  I want to point out to them that the voice that really matters today is theirs and not mine, and that their input is what will make this day brilliant.

A little bit about me: I’ve been teaching for 13 years. I worked in London secondaries for over 10 years then, two years ago, I moved to the Kent coast where I work with unaccompanied asylum seekers (also known as young people) teaching them English and providing pastoral support.

Teaching is my second career. I spent 10 years working in the music industry before that. Believe me, dealing with 30 teenagers is a breeze compared to corralling band members and record company executives with egos inversely proportionate to their talent.

The music industry was fun though and I enjoyed the ten years I spent working in it. But ultimately I came to find it stifling. As a woman there were very few role models in the upper echelons of the industry. So I saw no place for myself there long term. Because it’s important isn’t it, to see yourself in your environment? To know that there’s a place for you, that there are role models to aspire to, and that you, and all you bring, are valued. If you can’t see that, then it’s very difficult to stay.

The young people I work with currently are from countries which are war torn, where there are oppressive regimes, or where poverty has driven people from their homes. They are extraordinary people who have made journeys of thousands of miles by themselves, and survived terrible experiences en route. They are all unique, ingenious, and inspiring individuals. The press – and the local press in Kent are particularly bad – usually portray them in a negative way as if they have nothing to offer because they are ‘other’.  To counter this I do all I can to offer the young people I work with role models that they can relate to – people who look like them, speak their language or share experiences with them. That’s not always easy, but it’s important. All young people need to see themselves reflected in their environment. This is just basic, isn’t it? I need it. You need it. We all need to know that there is a place for us and that we are valued.

I’ll give you an example. Many of the existing resources for new learners of English have topics like ‘My Summer Holiday’. Can you see an issue here?  A worksheet about choosing between a luxury camping holiday in France or a skiing trip in the Swiss Alps seems like a horrible joke to put in front of students who may have spent months living entirely unwillingly in a refugee camp in Calais. More importantly it feels as it’s setting them up to fail. How can they possibly give of their best; how can I access the rich seams within them, if I offer up tasks based on experiences they have not had and cannot relate to.  So it requires work to include them - but not much. The same tasks are transformed when focused on the subject of taking a journey, rather than going on holiday. Now my students can relate, comment and contribute. Now I am mining their seams of experience. The lesson has become inclusive, or at least much more inclusive, and we are all richer for it.

I mentioned pastoral support a moment ago. For me that’s a small but key part of what we as educators can do to support any young people we work with who identify as trans. There’s a lot more, and today we will unpack what it means to be inclusive across the curriculum, but I want to take a moment to talk about pastoral care because it’s a part of the school day that has been under attack for some time.

Research shows that success at school is inextricably linked to the positive relationships students develop with their teachers, and as a form tutor I know that I played a hugely important role in supporting my tutees to succeed at school by being there for them. We used to have time together in the mornings to laugh, chat and catch up. It was my opportunity to check in with them all and that regular precious time together meant that I knew when they were having an off day or when something was bothering them.  That meant we could sort stuff out, or at the very least begin to sort stuff out, and sometimes just having someone to listen to them in a non-judgemental way was exactly what my students needed to ensure that their day at school was a positive and happy experience, and that they were set up to succeed and be able to learn effectively.

Those opportunities have become fewer and farther between as that precious tutor time is seen as yet another space to ‘make teachers accountable’ and to pile extra pressure on young people. Once I was trusted to make a professional judgement as to how to use that time to support my students. Now that time has been massively eroded and, in some cases, disappeared completely. Now tutor time is seen as additional teaching time and how we spend it is dictated to us. We may be told that we have to spend it checking homework, or doing book scrutinies. We may be told that we have to use it for revision or testing of subject knowledge.  The message that sends out to our students is that time spent supporting them isn’t valuable.

Here’s one message I’d like to send out to all the teachers in the audience at the beginning of this day. Any time spent supporting our students is monumentally valuable and we have to fight to protect it. We have to reclaim it where it’s been lost. We do not accept the narrative that says that only things that can be measured are of value. We say that what is valuable is our students and their well being – and that comes first. Because learning can’t happen effectively when our young people are unhappy or in distress. This is absolutely non-negotiable.

For me a key part of today is to ask ourselves what is our job as educators? For me being a teacher means giving the young people I work with the best broad and balanced education possible, to nurture them socially and emotionally, and to make sure that they are aware of all of the choices available to them and have the confidence to make the choices that are best for them. They need to know that there are no right or wrong choices, just ones that are right for them, that will enable them to go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

Trans equality matters. Our education institutions should be places where all can learn or work with dignity and respect. Once they have left school trans people have high levels of unemployment and self-employment and, for those who are employed, incomes are well below the national average. These high levels of workplace discrimination across all sectors give schools an additional and significant responsibility to ensure that trans students’ needs are met and that they feel supported and safe in our classrooms.

This isn’t optional. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, meaning that trans people are protected from discrimination and harassment in the workplace and in the provision of education and training.

Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 91 per cent of trans boys and 66 per cent of trans girls experienced harassment or bullying at school. The EHRC stated that this has led to many gender-variant children "hiding their identity to the detriment of their self-esteem".

Those are shameful statistics. But let’s be honest with ourselves. The curriculum at the moment is heteronormative, cis-gendered and mainly white. All students are trapped by a narrative that only recognises one way of being!  We need to embed gender variant issues across the curriculum. Let’s celebrate trans identities. Let’s make today the point at which we commit to a fully inclusive curriculum that works for all students, not just some.