School highlights achievements of world's leading gay figures

Education Editor,Richard Garner
Monday 08 November 2010 01:00

"What," asks the teacher, "have Sir Elton John, Alexander the Great, William Shakespeare and Clare Balding got in common?"

Other slides flash up at the front of the class: Sir Ian McKellen, Julius Caesar, Martina Navratilova, Richard the Lionheart, Oscar Wilde and Pam St Clement (EastEnders' Pat Butcher).

After some discussion, the answer arrives: they are all gay, lesbian or bisexual – Shakespeare is said to have been bisexual, this class is told – and they all feature in a new drive pioneered at a north London comprehensive which is trying to stamp out homophobic bullying.

The programme at the 1,350-pupil Stoke Newington School is proving so successful that it is quickly being snapped up by other schools.

"We had noticed that students were using the way 'gay' in the playground and it was seen as a term of abuse," said headteacher Annie Gammon.

Elly Barnes, the teacher who devised it, is now training staff from across the country to use the material. She has even had an approach from a school in Perth, western Australia.

The way the programme works at Stoke Newington is that all pupils attend joint assemblies on the issue and then it is fed into the curriculum of different subjects during a month set aside for stressing the contribution of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in history.

The school devised special lessons for teachers in every subject. In computer technology, they fixed on the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician at Bletchley Park, who cracked German codes during the Second World War, who was gay.

As homosexuality was illegal, he was thrown in prison, eventually agreeing to female hormone treatment as an alternative to being locked up. He later killed himself.

In music, they play Small Town Boy by Bronski Beat – the story of a gay boy ejected from the family home. The school, a specialist media and arts college, also used Brokeback Mountain, the film about two gay cowboys, to further explore the issues.

"It is something that can be swept under the carpet," said 16-year-old Kelly Grew. Jo Farrelly, 11, added: "It does help your understanding and I think everybody should have these lessons. By explaining it to kids they understand." Another said: "I didn't want to be associated with people who were gay or lesbian, but now I'm comfortable about it." Ms Gammon added: "One parent saw homosexuality as a sin and didn't want their child to be part of lessons. We had a discussion and their child participated. We are not a religious school and I feel it is a human rights issue."

The school plans to use the same approach to the subject of disability, using famous role models such as Professor Stephen Hawking.

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