LGBT: Shut out of education

Written by: Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

LGBT-inclusive education can change a young person’s life. We need to get it right from the start, says Stonewall’s Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton

In February, Stonewall published the first ever report to look into what life is like for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people who are not in education, training or work (Bradlow et al, 2020).

The report – entitled Shut out – is the result of in-depth interviews and focus groups with 30 LGBT young people. The young people mentioned specific areas of difficulty, such as bullying, mental health challenges and rejection from family or friends.

While we have previously known that these can cause problems for the LGBT community, this report breaks new ground in our understanding by allowing us to hear the lasting impact of these challenges on LGBT young people’s lives.

Growing up is hard, and for those who are LGBT it can be even harder. Anti-LGBT bullying is still widespread in schools, with our 2017 School Report finding that almost half (45 per cent) of LGBT pupils are bullied because they are LGBT (Bradlow et al, 2017).

High rates of bullying alongside a lack of visible LGBT identities in the curriculum can make young LGBT people feel isolated, or like it is somehow “bad” to be LGBT. This research also found that two in five (40 per cent) have never been taught about LGBT identities in their school.

Many young people we spoke to explained how being bullied in school, and feeling like they could not be themselves, prevented them from continuing in their education.

Sam, a 17-year-old gay man, said: “I knew I was not going to continue in education and that I wouldn’t be able to. I can’t deal with the negative energy tied to my sexuality.”

Many of the LGBT young people we heard from also found it difficult coming out to their family or friends. People also said that they struggled to find a support network that understood them. This echoes our previous research which found that only two in five LGBT young people (40 per cent) have an adult at home they can talk to about their identity.

The young people explained that having trouble at home or being rejected by their family because of who they were, made it significantly harder for them to focus on their education or work – that might be because of impacts on their mental health, or because their priorities shifted if they were asked to leave the family home.

Adela, a 23-year-old bi/pan woman from Wales, said: “At 16, I went to live with my partner. That was good for a while, but we split up when I was 19 so I didn’t have anywhere to live. I wasn’t working or looking for a job at that point. It’s not really what your main focus is, is it?”

Sadly, it is not uncommon for LGBT people to experience mental health difficulties, with our LGBT in Britain health report revealing that half of LGBT people (52 per cent) said they have experienced depression in the last year (Bachmann & Gooch, 2017).

Struggling with your mental health also adds barriers to education, like struggling to concentrate on studies or having to take time off school due for mental health reasons. This can be another factor that leads to LGBT young people being shut out of work and education.

The young people we spoke to also explained that once they had been shut out of education, work or training, it became even harder to re-enter. Some told us this was because they could not find support services that were LGBT-inclusive, while others feared they would encounter the same discrimination that led them to leave in the first place.

We cannot leave LGBT young people shut out of education, work or training. So now that we understand more about the problems, what can we do to keep the doors open for them?

First, making school and college environments LGBT-inclusive is a crucial part of changing this narrative right from the start. It is important to make sure that education includes LGBT people throughout everything they do – from anti-bullying policies to inclusive teaching – so that children and young people know that there is nothing “wrong” or “bad” about being LGBT, and can feel accepted as who they are.

As well as this, children and young people need to know that being an LGBT person should never be a barrier to reaching their potential. To do this, schools and colleges must consider how to make their careers guidance inclusive. This could include hearing from successful LGBT people across a range of industries, challenging stereotypes that some professions are only for people of a certain gender, as well as discussing the legal protections for LGBT people in the workplace.

As we know that LGBT people are at higher risk of mental health problems, it is also crucial that schools and colleges work with local authorities to ensure that mental health support is available for all who need it. They must also make sure that counsellors have training in the specific needs of LGBT people, to enable them to give appropriate and high-quality support.

When they begin this journey, there are some easy things that schools and colleges can change immediately, for instance teaching about LGBT role models including Frida Kahlo and Alan Turing. For anyone who may find themselves teaching at home, our Home Learning Packs can help you.

And Stonewall is always here to help. Through our School, College and Children and Young People’s Services Champions Programmes, we work with primary and secondary schools, colleges and local authorities across the UK to help them create LGBT-inclusive environments for their students and young people using their services.

By making simple changes to be more inclusive of everyone, we can make sure that every LGBT young person is supported through their education and into training and work. We must start opening the doors, so LGBT young people no longer need to worry that they could be shut out because of who they are.

  • Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton is head of education programmes at Stonewall. For more information about the charity’s work with schools and colleges, visit www.stonewall.org.uk/schools-colleges


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