Celebrating Diversity at Stoke Newington School

Henry Stewart's picture
"Stoke Newington schoolkids are marching in Clissold Park for gay rights! "I blew them a kiss and shed a little tear" tweeted @sioframacherie this afternoon. It is LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) week at Stoke Newington School. The whole of Year 8 had spent the day creating banners and other materials and this afternoon the whole year, over 200 students, walked round the local park displaying their messages.

"When we walked into the park the first person we saw was an elderly man walking his dog", explained Elly Barnes - the teacher who co-ordinates LBGT week at the school. "He burst into tears when he saw us. I talked to him and he explained 'Iwas on the very first Gay Liberation demonstration in this country in 1970. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see this sight.'"

Tonight was the school's annual LBGT celebratory concert. Now concerts at Stoke Newington School are always great events, with the students enthusiastically cheering each other on and showing huge support even when their colleagues get things wrong. But tonight was especially inspiring and moving. Musical performances alternated with student drama and examples of the work they have been doing.

A Year 7 student explained how they had been working in ICT on Alan Turing, a key part of the codebreaking team at Bletchley Park and held by many to be the father of modern computing. He was arrested for being gay in 1952, forced to take hormone tablets and committed suicide in 1954.

The Head of PE presented six members of the girls' Rugby team, some of whom play for Middlesex, and talked about how the school's first LGBT week had led him to challenge stereotypes in sport. Five years on the school has had champion girls teams in Rugby, Football, Basketball and Cricket.

There was a special guest appearance from paralympics athlete Clare Harvey, who captained Scotland at Rugby before a horrific bicycle accident confined her to a wheelchair. Now she is part of UK's floor volleyball team, getting up at 4.30 each morning for intensive training. She talked about the decision about whether to keep her sexual orientation hidden and live a lie in public or be open about being a Lesbian.

This was a local community school at its absolute best. It was a celebration of diversity and a call to support all our students for who they are, and for all of us to be proud of who we are. Banners round the hall, made by the students, carried messages like "No matter who we are, we are all human" and "Some people are gay. Get over it."

It made me very proud to be associated with the school (as a parent and a governor) and hoping that, in all the changes being introduced, this crucial work not only continues but expands.


Postscript, 19th March 2011

This article prompted Toby Young to write a mocking piece on the Spectator web site, and then to a range of other articles.

Click here for Toby's Spectator piece, which includes some great responses from staff, parents and students in support of the school. He then wrote a further article in the Telegraph, attacking those who had disagreed with him.

To find out more about LGBT week at Stoke Newington School, read this inspiring and moving interview with teacher Elly Barnes, who is responsible for the work. Also useful is the information on the school's own web-site. And this is an article from the Guardian in October 2010 in praise of Elly's EGBT work. Earlier this year Pink News wrote about David Cameron's support for LGBT week.

For further reactions:

Francis Gilbert responded to Toby's article with 'Its not only left-wing nutters that believe in great local schools for all' on this site.

An ex-student wrote "In defence of LGBT month" in Liberal Conspiracy. Duncan Evans asked for an apology from Toby Young on For What its Worth. This article appeared in Labour Teachers, criticising Toby's "crass assumptions". SoSoGay commented that Toby Young continues to lose friends and alienate people.

Hsiao-Hung Pai wrote a piece for Diva, after interviewing parents at the school. And finally, so far, a local parent added this item on Harry's Place.
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Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 12:48

This is a truly heart warming story. It underlines the invaluable contributions schools can make to the long-term future of society where respect for all is at the centre of a school's ethos.

Unfortunately, over the years a view has taken root that a lot of schools which celebrate diversity generally have low attainment. This is absolutely not the case.

I'm against the promulgation of free schools because I fear they will be an inevitable recipe for the growth of a segregated and intolerant society. I hope I'm wrong.

Parents worry that their children are not getting the 'right' academic education to secure their futures

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 13:10

sorry, I pressed the reply button before finishing my sentence...

Parents worry that their children are not getting the 'right' education to secure their futures... the very best way to put this right is to give all the extra time these parents are happy to expend in launching a new project to working with the current schools.

Please pressure this government into paying more money to those experienced and gifted teachers who are willing to dedicate their time to turning some of the failing schools around. This, together with parent power, is all that it takes to get the kind of local school we want for all our children.

julia's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 23:45

What a heart warming story - I know of a gay man who wasn't appointed as a Head because the Chair of Governors objected to him wearing a black shirt at the interview!!

Warwick Cairns's picture
Fri, 25/02/2011 - 18:52

God! "LGBT" week for Year 8s? And this is meant to be a good thing? I grew up on a council estate and went to my local comprehensive in Dagenham, but I am so thankful I can now afford to send my children to private school, if this is what today's state education has to offer.

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 15:09

This PC rubbish is a disgrace. Publicise this a bit more please, to increase support for free schools. Children need to be taught, not subjected to propaganda. Heaven help the state sector if this sort of thing spreads!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 15:41

To Finbar and Warwick, surely tolerance is one of the most important values we can teach our children?

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 16:52

Tolerance, yes; but do we need to devote a whole day to this? Would you have a day devoted to tolerance of people who disagree with your particular view point? I doubt it!
Let me add to a well-known phrase: "Some people are gay, get over it; most people aren't, get on with it."

William Stewart's picture
Tue, 01/03/2011 - 15:46

Finbar -
To answer your question - having experienced lessons at Stoke Newington I would say that actually yes, the school does give time to people who disagree with a particular viewpoint. In fact the emphasis on community and diversity encourages everyone to have their say. Unfortunately society traditionally listens to certain groups' viewpoints more often than others. Surely an education for modern society should encourage learners to experience and share their thoughts and ideas. If only the majority of schools did not have the fear to allow students to engage and discuss in such topics.

Warwick Cairns's picture
Tue, 01/03/2011 - 21:06

Look, I understand that there's a bit of an ideological dimension here. I understand that even the term 'LGBT' makes me cringe, and that the idea of children of 12 being made to celebrate the thing sets my teeth on edge. Particularly the 'T' bit. Transexuals, in my book (or indeed, the 'transgendered') are more to be pitied than celebrated. Even with the best surgery and hormone therapy in the world they can never really and truly become full members of the other sex. They best they can hope for, I think, is convincing, surgicalIy-enhanced transvestitism. Many of the less convincing end up looking like pantomime dames. Whether this is enough to make them happy in life I don't know. The point is this, though: there are any number of sexual minorities, from the big minorities, like lesbians and gays, down to the smaller and more specialist ones, who go in for things like mud, or shoes, or furry animal costumes or superhero outfits or items even more esoteric. And perhaps it is good for children, at some stage, to realise that these tendencies exist, and that it's wrong to be mean to people because of the way they are. But at the age of twelve? And for an entire week? And at school? I'd be much happier, as a parent, to know that my children were studying maths, or English, or something similarly academic. Actually - and to tell the entire truth - I'd be quite happy if they celebrated Empire Day or something more in tune with my own ideological leanings instead, though I realise that this would set a lot of other people's teeth on edge too, just as LGBT week does for me. Much better, I think, to stick to proper schoolwork and leave out the ideology altogether.

James Davison's picture
Thu, 03/03/2011 - 17:30

@ Warwick and Finbar. Some children grow up to be gay. Clearly, you two are not.
I dont think you can comment on the importance of this work and offer a solution unless you have actually experienced what its like to grow up through secondary school feeling you are despised and misunderstood every day by your peers, staff and society as a whole.
I'd rather send my child to a school similar to SNS where it promotes inclusion and social understanding. The world needs that. You can't possibly argue otherwise.
also @ Warwick. Transgender people dont feel sorry for themselves, and I think, no I'm certain, would be horrified if they read that you pitied them. I'm sure they would tell you, with all due respect, to keep that aswell.

Warwick Cairns's picture
Thu, 03/03/2011 - 22:15

I think we're going to have to agree to disgree on the transgender issue, James. I'd point to their massively higher suicide rate and say that what they have is a genuine problem, not simply a lifestyle choice. You'd probably say that it's a lack of understanding in society that makes them unhappy, if indeed they are so; I'd say it's actually the unrealisability (if there is such a word) of their goal: that men can no more become real women, through surgery, and women can no more become real men, than I could alter my 'species assignation' by changing my name to Fido and having plastic surgeons fashion me a snout and floppy ears. And weeing up lamp-posts. But all of this is a side-issue to the debate on education. And what it proves, I think, the fact that we disagree, is the need for choice. That the sorts of schools that I (and Finbar, I should imagine) would like like to send our children to are not the same sorts of schools you'd like to send yours to. And vice versa. And perhaps free schools might be one way of offering a wider choice?

James Davison's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 13:39

@Warwick. Its a tough one but I think that the issue can not be spun into a simple matter of choice. You will have gay students in every school Warwick and not to give developing minds a voice can only have a negative outcome.
Remember that LGBT people for example are our doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, teachers and are present in all facets of life. Could there be a correlation between the suicides and the promotion of attitudes such as yours? I for one wouldn't want to go through life with half smiles and sympathetic stares. You dont want your child's school to acknowledge that good people and valid members of society are born differently has roots in you inability to truly expand your social horizons. You have a pre conceived idea that I'm afraid to say is both inaccurate and I imagine has no real basis in personal experience. I recommend that you visit SNS and look at the work they do there. Look at what SNS teachers teach and what the students learn. I'd be happy to visit a polar opposite of SNS in return.

James Davison's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 13:55

also @ Finbar Murphy. In response to your addition to the Stonewall phrase. 'Some people are gay. Get over it. Most people aren't, get on with it.'

The issue that most people are heterosexual is not the issue Finbar. LGBT people are still victimized, beaten and murdered because of their sexual orientation is.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 16:05

@ Francis and Finbar. If people didn't just "tolerate" but accepted and celebrated not just LGBT people but anyone with lifestyles and beliefs different from our own and within the law then we wouldn't have to get into facile arguments about ‘Some people are gay. Get over it. Most people aren’t, get on with it.’

Laban Tall's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 21:00

And the work of cultural destruction continues ...

Back in the early 60s the Trinidadian writer and Trotskyist CLR James was worried about the sense of identity of Caribbean children - contrasting it with the solidity of English self-knowledge :

"English people, for example, have a conception of themselves breathed from birth. Drake and mighty Nelson, Shakespeare, Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the few who did so much for so many, the success of parliamentary democracy, those and such as those constitute a national tradition."

I wonder how many of the above are ever celebrated at Stoke Newington ?

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 22:43

Laban: Actually my son came home and told me they had sung the national anthem at Stoke Newington School today, and been studying British identity in the 19th century. Also all my kids have studied lots of Shakespeare and key periods of British history. Especially the Tudors.

Back to the subject, useful post from "blacksticks" on Toby's Telegraph post, showing the backing for LGBT activities in schools:

"I would like to pay tribute to all those who give up their time to bring LGBT History Month together. Events like this enrich our society and challenge us to think more about the world around us." - David Cameron, 10th February, 2011

MmmmeM's picture
Sat, 05/03/2011 - 07:20

Allan Beavis: You are spot on about acceptance being the way. Tolerance is only a small step in that direction. Celebration will perhaps always be hard for some people, as shows up in the comments and likes listed above. Freedom to rejoice in our differences is one of the 'national traditions' all our children can at last 'breathe from birth'. Let's just hope they don't lose it.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 11:42

Toby Young’s poor judgement in his own careless conduct here calls into question his suitability for leading the foundation of a new school.


The fact remains that Toby Young judged it appropriate to use his column in the Spectator to attack his critics and, in doing so, used the example of Stoke Newington School to ridicule the state education comprehensive system. As far as I am aware, no one at Stoke Newington School has publicly attacked Mr. Young for his mission in setting up the West London Free School so why he chose to criticize this school is a mystery.

He made assumptions and judgments about the preparation and purpose of LGBT day, about the integrity of the school’s policy and staff and he infers that the school is in the grip of a totalitarian or fascistic regime (The Chinese Cultural Revolution, “verboten”, re-education camps).

He deliberately chose to write his article without having visited the school, experienced the curricular and extra-curricular activities of LGBT, spoken to governors, staff or students. He has not, to date, made a direct and coherent response to those correspondents on this site or other sites who have questioned the crass and dangerous assumptions he has made and the prejudices he appears to hold.

None of this would be particularly important if he were just a media personage or a poster boy for the Tory Party but he is someone who is leading the mission to set up a school and, as such, will have moral and legal responsibilities towards children.

This founder of West London Free School ridiculed – in print - the purpose of LGBT at Stoke Newington School, seemingly unaware that, by law, schools (including his own) must ensure that they deliver a rounded and varied education including not just the academic curriculum but the PSHCE topics such as LGBT awareness.

Will he therefore flagrantly encourage his school to disregard those areas of education, enshrined in statue law and policy, which he deems unnecessary ? Will he encourage his students to follow his example here to bully and ridicule an institution or people who do not conform to their values?

I am not suggesting that Toby Young sought to incite hatred by blogging about his lack of support on this site on his Daily Telegraph blog but I am saying that he is not disingenuous, so he must have known that by raising the topic of teaching LGBT on the Telegraph blog, he would encourage the type of ignorant and violent bile which he, as the founder of a new school, has an obligation to ensure that his school educates its students to eradicate. By, er, including subjects such as LGBT awareness.

In my view, Toby Young has been very energetic and public in his mission to pre-judge, misappropriate, ridicule and divide. His conduct and his judgement have been seriously flawed and therefore his suitability to be involved at the highest level in the education of children has to be called into question.

John's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 02:06

People are making it sound as if a 12 year old learning about these things is an unacceptable thing.

People can start realising that they are LGBT as soon as they hit adolescence. This means that many people can discover that they are gay/lesbian/bisexual at the age of 13, possibly even less. I know because I started realising when I began year 8 (though I did not accept it until I was in year 9).

Back when I was in year 8, I was in an ultimate state of confusion. There was no form of celebrated awareness back then. I could not say anything to anyone and was constantly questioning whether I was 'normal'. Homophobia was rife, so I thought it was best to lie. I had no reassurance from any LGBT events either... A single LGBT event back then would have helped me so much.

Not only do events like these encourage tolerance but also comfort LGBT teenagers who are just discovering themselves and are confused.

It may certainly be called LGBT "week", but the time taken out of lessons to participate in it (which teaches an important life lesson anyway) is relatively small. Most of the work is done in class and is very well integrated into the subjects. Learning "facts" and learning "tolerance" are not mutually exclusive things. You can easily think of it as a different style of learning for one academic week.

Alice Gwinnell's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 13:48

I came out at 13 (to my parents and at school), but had known since I was about 11/12, though I went through various different stages of denial, trying to fit in, pretending to myself and others that I fancied boys etc etc before I finally began to accept who I really am. Those who comment here on the unimportance of such topics being covered in schools are lucky never to have had to experience growing up gay in a society where just about all the media surrounding you depicts heterosexuals or at best stereotyped versions of homosexuality. Think about the relationships children are shown in most books, films, TV shows etc and no wonder those who are gay grow up feeling left out, isolated and often very angry with low self esteem. I was one of the lucky ones - my parents have always been supportive and my friends at school and most of my teachers gradually got used to the idea (once they stopped telling me it was a 'phase'). But I have also experienced being spat at in the street and having total strangers shout abuse at me more than once, purely because I had the audacity to hold hands with or kiss the woman I loved in public. (Just imagine if you had to censor all acts of affection every time you were anywhere except the privacy of your own home - I'm not talking about full on snogging or more, but about all those little physical signs most people aren't even aware they are doing which show that someone is our partner.)

I am now a secondary school teacher myself and in a civil partnership with two small children. I am out at work and though I was anxious about being openly gay and pregnant, my pupils were amazingly supportive of me which just shows how times are changing (no, I don't teach at Stoke Newington, but at a private all boys school). Having children means I now face a whole new set of prejudices and assumptions from society. As anyone who has done it can testify, coming out is not one act but a continuous process throughout life. Since that day over 20 years ago when I told my parents I am gay, I must have come out hundreds of times - each new person I meet and new situation I am in requires a decision to reveal who I really am or to allow the other person to make an assumption that I am straight (I do not look like a stereotypical lesbian and having children most assume there is a man at home not another woman). I choose to be truthful about who I am and who I love - if nothing else it might open a few eyes and minds and make people realise that not all gay people fit the stereotype - but every time there is a split second when I wonder how the other person will respond, what they will think of me.

I want our son and daughter to grow up in a world where their parents' sexuality (and their own, whatever it may be) is not an issue. The ground-breaking work that Stoke Newington School has started is a step on the road to this world.

And finally, Warwick, being gay or transgender is not a "lifestyle choice". If you actually come out of your bubble and speak to some real gay people you will realise that we did not choose or ask for this. It feels as normal for me to be gay as it does for you to be straight. I was born this way. I hope for their sake (because of your bigotry) that your children are not gay, though maybe it might open your eyes and your mind a bit if they were.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 14:22

Thank you for telling us your story. I think you explain very clearly why this sort of work in schools is necessary and to be celebrated, not condemned.

Warwick Cairns's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 08:24

Alice, it would be fair to criticise me for saying that being gay or transgender is a lifestyle choice, if that were what I had said.
Whereas - and speaking specifically about transexuals (not gays) - I said "what they have is a genuine problem, not simply a lifestyle choice."

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