Pressure group Stonewall’s annual list of the top 100 lesbian, gay and bisexual-friendly employers included just three FE and skills-related institutions. Wanda Wyporska looks at what the sector can do, and is doing, to stamp out homophobia.
When austerity bites, equalities work is often seen as a luxury, and certainly cuts to the FE sector are biting, as colleges struggle to do ever more work with ever fewer resources.
However, promoting equality and diversity is at the very core of what colleges do, since they are at the heart of their varied communities.
Colleges are likely to have staff and students from the local communities and in turn, they provide a safe environment for often vulnerable students to not only reach their potential but also explore all sorts of issues.
We know from our members that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia all raise their ugly heads from time to time in various situations and locations.
The trade unions in the sector have equalities and legal experts who are happy to help and advise members as well as colleges, in working together to draft policies, agreements and develop good working practices.
Swift and effective action reassures lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that homophobia is taken seriously
The Association of Colleges and sector unions negotiated the Joint Agreement on Guidance on Equality in Employment in FE Colleges, which is an excellent model policy.
However, despite lots of good practice in a variety of areas, problems remain both in the classroom and the staffroom, which is why we support the Stonewall campaign highlighting homophobia in the workplace.
Yet the solution to tackling homophobia is relatively easy. Swift and effective action reassures lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that homophobia is taken seriously by the college.
Celebrating LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) History Month each February, establishing an LGBT support group or network, and of course, good policies, regular training and effective monitoring, all play a part in creating an LGBT-friendly environment.
The ‘nothing about us, without us’ mantra is key here; there must be discussion with LGBT staff and students.
Luckily, in this digital age, there are many organisations and resources available.
The Forum for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Post-16 Education (www.sgforum.org.uk) has a variety of excellent resources on gender variance, the intersection between faith/religion and belief and sexual orientation, a gender identity equality e-resource and of course, the 12 steps to advancing sexual orientation and gender identity equality.
There is also help available from the Skills Funding Agency’s (SFA) Equality and Diversity Innovation Fund (EDI), managed by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace).
Project Empower, a free one-hour e-learning tool developed by Doncaster Group Training Association and Pinnacle Training Solutions, has been used by more than 3,000 FE staff since its launch in 2011.
Huntingdonshire Regional College’s project, To Monitor Or Not, created an inclusive and tolerant environment in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender learners felt comfortable to share their personal experiences.
Monitoring is always a sensitive issue, and again there is advice on this from members of the forum on its website, both from the perspective of students and staff.
Monitoring for its own sake is a mere tick box exercise, what is important, is what adjustments are made as a result.
More challenging, perhaps, is work around transgender adults and the EDI is supporting Blackpool Council Adult and Community Learning, to develop a research project led by transgender adults. They aim to make the voice of transgender people heard in the development of adult and community learning and develop trans-friendly teaching and learning practices.
Undoubtedly there are areas of bad practice, there are people with prejudices in colleges, as there are in society at large.
However, most colleges are keen to support learners and staff, to maximise attainment, ensure equality of opportunity and to support and promote good relationships between those with protected characteristics and those without. As the Stonewall campaign says ‘Lots to do’.
Dr Wanda Wyporska, equalities officer, Association of Teachers and Lecturers