Stoke Newington teacher named as most influential gay/lesbian in the UK

Henry Stewart's picture

The Independent on Sunday today published its 2011 'pink list', the 100 most influential gays and lesbians in the UK. Many of the names are very familiar, figures like singer Jesse J, comedian Alan Carr, broadcaster Evan Davies and Politician Simon Hughes. However top of the list as the single most influential gay or lesbian in the country is a woman who few IoS readers will have heard of, teacher Elly Barnes.

This is a fitting tribute to a remarkable individual and also to the positive impact that teachers can have. I wrote last year about the LGBT concert that Elly organised as part of LGBT Week at Stoke Newington School, a hugely inspiring event. Elly has worked for several years, patiently and positively, to combat discrimination and portray positive images of lesbians and gays.

Homophobic language is sadly rife in youth culture. Stonewall found last year that 95% of teaching staff report that the use of 'gay' as an insult is common in their schools. A remarkable testament to Elly's work is the change in that culture. When I first read that 'gay' was no longer used as an insult at SNS I found it hard to believe. But my kids confirmed not only that this was the case, but that for those who did use it (eg, students coming to sixth form from other schools) it was other kids that stopped them.

The area of Stoke Newington has a strong gay and lesbian community. But the school itself is very diverse, with many coming from areas not traditionally positive about gay equality - about a quarter of the students are muslim and many others come from evangelical Christian backgrounds. Yet among the wide ranging feedback I get from parents (as Chair of Governors) I have never had a complaint about the LGBT work.

The listing was the result of dozens of those who have worked with Elly writing to the IoS to nominate her. One ex student commented simply that Elly had changed her life. That is of course what great teachers do. They change student lives.

Elly is a shining example of how teachers and schools can have a truly positive impact. And her work also shows the importance of the work schools do, far beyond the core curriculum, in building communities. A very well deserved listing.
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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 18:59

I used to teach at a Catholic school. To be an openly gay teacher wasn't really the done thing as you can imagine, but one strong teacher became 'know to be gay' during the months before she was due to leave. Nobody complained, it wasn't overtly done, it just happened.

What was startling was the transformation effect it had on some of the school's most disruptive and/or alienated students. Suddenly they had a role model who helped them be more confident in themselves and who they were. Some of them clearly had issues with their own sexuality but others - well if they did you wouldn't have guessed.

It was startling and revealing to watch and I'm very grateful to that teacher both for her personal beneficial effect on those students and for the insights that dynamic gave me.

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