Stephen Twigg – 2012 Speech to Stonewall Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, to the Stonewall Conference held at the British Library in London on 5th July 2012.

Good morning everyone. It is great to be here and to have the opportunity to address you on the very important issues of how we tackle homophobia and homophobic bullying in our schools. Schools- and the education system more broadly- have made very real progress in tackling discrimination and bullying in its many forms since I was at school. I will leave it to you to judge how long ago that was. As a young gay man at school, I was unable to share the truth about my sexual orientation openly. In fact I only shared it with a single friend, even though I knew for years that I was gay. I am pleased to learn about the brilliant work that is being done by schools, local authorities, trade unions, businesses and third sector organisations to ensure that young LGBT people feel that they can be more open than I felt I could be.

Television and the media can be powerful beacons for exposing discrimination and addressing homophobic bullying in society. I want to pay tribute to programmes like Hollyoaks that has tackled this issue head on.

Whilst schools play a very important role, which I will come on to, the media – and increasingly social media- can be influential in combating the discrimination that scars the lives of too many young people. It is fantastic to have Mark Thompson with us today and to hear his thoughts on how the media takes forward its responsibility.

I welcome today’s publication of the Schools Report 2012. This is a very important contribution to this debate. As Labour’s education spokesman, I have the pleasure of being able to spend a good deal of time visiting schools and colleges right across the country.

Schools should be safe environments, conducive to learning, enquiry and discovery. They should be spaces for young people to develop as individuals.

Places where we celebrate culture and diversity within our society, at home and around the world. Schools are the vehicles by which children embark on their own journey of destiny and fulfilment.

But we know that this vision is not one that is offered to all young people and today’s report highlights that, whilst progress has been made, as Ben rightly points out in his introduction to the School Report 2012, today’s findings leave little room for complacency. More than half of the 1600 young people surveyed for this study reported experience of homophobic bullying. Of those, over 2 in 5 have attempted or thought about taking their own life as a direct consequence. These findings show just how far we still have to go in realising the vision for all children, in all of our schools that I have just set out.

To strike a more positive note, there are real improvements. Levels of homophobic bullying down 10% since Stonewall’s 2007 School Report. The number of schools that say homophobic bullying is wrong has more than doubled.

A testament to all of those people and organisations that have taken the initiative and led from the front. We may finally be moving out of the long dark shadow cast by Section 28. I want to pick out a couple of examples of schools that are doing exactly this.

I want to pay tribute to the pupils at the Magna Carta School in Surrey. Charlotte Hewitt, Molly Russell, Hannah Wells, Cara Houghton and Duncan Lewry produced, as part of their creative and media diploma, a short film to expose the reality facing those on the receiving end of homophobic bullying. ‘Homophobia: Our Closeted Education’ won praise from the Prime Minister. In taking on this project, these young people have shown excellent examples of leadership and we should all commend their efforts.

To take another example. Earlier this week I visited Royal Wootton Bassett Academy to learn about their excellent Every Child Matters programme. The school sets aside 5 days per year for pupils to learn about social issues.

I joined Year 9 students to hear Eva Clarke a Holocaust Survivor give her very powerful testimony and make explicit connections with prejudice and bigotry today.

I welcome that schools are taking the initiative and structuring their curriculums to educate young people on what it is to be a citizen in today’s society.

And in a few minutes we will learn the winner of this year’s Stonewall Education Equality Index. I look forward to presenting this important award.

I want to say a few words now on changes in the education landscape and how these are likely to impact on our efforts to combat homophobia in schools.

I believe in a broad curriculum, grounded in rigour and one that allows flexibility for schools. Labour in government introduced citizenship to the secondary curriculum. I am a passionate believer that schools have an important role in fostering young people who have high standards in Numeracy and Literacy, and in creating citizens and the civic leaders of the future. We are often presented with a false choice by the current government on this.

It’s rigour and standards versus a rounded education, they say. I say, yes to rigour and high standards, for all children in all schools. And yes, to a curriculum that enables schools, whatever the type of school, to equip children with a rounded education, one that challenges prejudice and celebrates diversity.

I see from the workshops planned for the breakout sessions that you will hear for yourselves excellent examples of schools, primary and secondary, using the flexibilities within their curriculum to do exactly this. I am excited by schools like School 21, being set up in Newham, and Reddish Vale Technology college, where I visited recently, that are taking innovative approaches to embedding PSHE and citizenship education within their curriculum. There are many tools being deployed in our schools.

The use of extended projects that require independent enquiry and investigation across subject areas. Scheduled debating time built into the school day. Speaking and listening skills should be at the core of a 21st century curriculum. School volunteering projects, working with community partners to take action in local communities. Theatre and the arts as a means for expression and celebration. These are just some of the exciting initiatives that schools are taking.

I regret that the Government looks set to backtrack on this agenda on citizenship, in pursuit of an education system guided by a rose tinted view of what worked in the past. But I know that there is a great deal of good will and desire from within the school system and that many schools will use the flexibilities afforded to them to maintain a broad, rich and inclusive curriculum.

The schools landscape is changing very rapidly in England. The school system will be a very different one at the next General Election to the one that the Government inherited in May 2010.

We are seeing an unprecedented centralisation with the proliferation of academies and introduction of free schools. This presents big questions on how schools, and other agencies in education, work together to continue to raise standards for all children in all schools.

Traditionally, local authorities have been an integral part of the school system. Now that more than half of all secondary schools in England are academies, we are seeing a fragmentation in the school system. I welcome the opportunity for more innovation in our schools. However, it is not desirable nor is it feasible for so many schools to be accountable only to the Secretary of State. It creates a democratic deficit.

Schools should not operate as independent islands. I am a true believer in both autonomy and collaboration. There is so much potential in greater collaboration between schools and between teachers in different schools. We have the best generation of teachers ever and we must build on this.

So we must look carefully at the impact of this fragmentation on raising standards. But also, on how schools and agencies can respond to promote collaboration more broadly. We know that many teachers have not had sufficient training on how to address homophobic bullying. The report today highlights this. Where voids have been created, I welcome the work that is being done to fill them by Stonewall, trade unions and others.

I have launched a consultation looking into these questions around, what has been termed ‘the middle tier’, in the school system to see how best we address concerns about democratic accountability and how schools can work in partnership and I would welcome submissions from you here today.

The School Report sets out challenges for schools, the DfE and Ofsted. It also makes recommendations for local authorities and Academy Chains. It is vital that these proposals are adopted.

In closing, let me again pay tribute to Stonewall and its crucial Education for All programme. I’m delighted that Wes Streeting has joined the Stonewall Team to lead this important work. I hope that today’s report will be a strong reminder to us all that yes progress has been made and we are right to champion this success. But also to show that there is no room for complacency and that it is incumbent upon us all to challenge homophobic bullying and discrimination wherever it rears its head.