Mat Richards is a Personal Development Teacher at Cockermouth School in rural Cumbria, and also works as an inclusion consultant. Cockermouth is a relatively large state school, with 1400 students aged 11-18. The student intake reflects the community in the local area - there are a low number of students entitled to FSM. Many come in with scores above national average, and leave with results above national average.
I’ve been at the school for 11 years. They’ve always had a good personal development programme, teaching citizenship, PSHE and RS together in one subject with dedicated specialist teachers.
We always taught about sexuality in the curriculum. I arrived trained in Citizenship and PSHE, and immediately wanted to add sexuality and gender identity into the work we already did. This has built over the years but didn’t include an LGBT+ club for a long time.
Five or six years ago I’d had enough of the language around the school: the use of gay as a negative, and other homophobic language. I did the Train the Trainer course with Stonewall, and following this the school were very happy with me doing a whole school campaign on diversity and equality in general. In a predominantly white British school this is very important.
I did a couple of years of doing staff training. We did school surveys on language, campaigns around school on homophobia, ableism, racism, and other types of prejudice. For the last three or four years I’ve been training schools in the area - it was when I was doing this that other schools would ask to start an LGBT+ group. I realised the irony of me advising them without having one myself!
The current group - we call ourselves the LGBT+ group - has been running for two and a half years. It started with me emailing every student in the school saying that were all welcome at the group, including allies, and gave them the start date.
We started strongly with 20-25 members. When they first arrived people peered suspiciously round the door, worrying that it was a trap. I didn’t blame them - before that point I’d had some horrendous conversations with other schools, and heard of situations where the school outed students to their parents.
It’s a mixture between me and the students leading it. We had quite a big group of 10s-11s who have now gone into sixth form. They have enrichment on a Wednesday afternoon and I suggested that they use this as their timetabled enrichment, so could take ownership of it. I put out an ad asking for sixth formers who wanted to lead and got a good response.
We’ve had some people come and go but generally a core group stay. They bring along items for discussion, or do activities, but it’s more of a social club than anything. In first week I asked them what they wanted to do and they said ‘we want to come here and be queer without anyone giving us hassle for it’.
That said, during the time it’s been running the group has done training for Heads of Year, as well as an in-depth session for Personal Development teachers on gender and sexuality and the relationship between the two. Currently they’re training primary schools. They’ve been an invaluable focus group for other people who benefit hugely from their insight.
They’ve also run an LGBT+ cafe after school in town, analysed the curriculum and made lesson resources. The sessions work best when they’re student-led and loosely structured, and my priority is that they find it to be a safe space. Recently a trans boy talked about what it’s like to transition and it exemplified to me how they feel comfortable to share their personal experiences.
I’m lucky - I’d had previous support from my school so I knew they’d be supportive of me getting it set up. My challenges are related more to the students and who comes to the group: I’m aware that there are plenty of LGBT+ in the school who don’t come to the club. They don’t publicly want to hang out and be ‘in the scene’. Then there’s students who haven’t got supportive families around them. It still makes me hugely sad that there are a couple of kids who have to pretend they’re going to another club
Cliqueness remains an issue which I’m yet to crack. I’ve thought of various solutions, including a couple of of group ‘relaunches’, which is a handy refresher. I can see friendship groups coming up the school who will make great leaders, but I have to be conscious of who might then feel excluded.
A huge benefit to me as a member of school staff is the insight it’s given me into the students’ experiences, that you just don’t get from a teacher’s point of view. I’ve found out about things which have gone wrong with students and staff, such as a Head of Year who outed a student to their parents. It let me know that although I’d previously run training in which we spoke about not outing students to their parents, this was something I needed to reiterate urgently. The students give me insight which allows me to help them more.
I find it ironic that me, a straight middle aged bloke who isn’t trans ends up being a champion for LGBT+! But I think it goes to show that you don’t need to be LGBT+ to champion awareness and equality, as long as you listen to people’s experiences. It’s given me such an insight that it’s still bloody hard to be LGBT+. Many people think it’s easy now, but it really isn’t.
My highlight of running the group was the visit to Newcastle Pride! Cumbria can be a slightly parochial, isolated place. They were all very excited and some of them were terrified to start with. Some lads have only just come to terms with their sexuality and Pride was quite intimidating. But the look on their faces as the big march began to gather was brilliant. They saw everyone out and proud: dancers, fire breathers, and people in interesting costumes. Even the police had a float. It blew them all away.
If you’re thinking of starting a group: do it. It’s of immense value to those students. It’s been fantastic for making change in the school and other schools. For them, just being able to get together with similar identities can make huge change. We’ve had people who have been able to come out to their parents and be who they are at home as well as at school.