Georgia Butler

My school years don’t feel that long ago. Ok, perhaps they weren’t, but primary school certainly was and the lingering impression of my charming nickname refuses to budge. Ginger Gay. Ginger Gay. Really. I suppose I do appreciate the alliteration, and the sentiment certainly proved accurate, but hindsight doth not wipeth my tears away.

I digress. But it does occur to me that our early years are paramount to the development of our identities, and maybe – just maybe – if that was nurtured, they would flourish and bloom instead of shrivelling into an anxious mess.

2019 witnessed some disquieting events – notably the protests against LGBT-inclusive education outside school gates in Birmingham. With this in mind it’s worth highlighting the success stories, and St Mary’s Preparatory School in Henley-on-Thames is certainly one such case.

The school has been awarded a School & College Bronze Award by Stonewall for progress towards an inclusive community, following changes made to school policies. To find out more, I spoke to Kate Bodle, St Mary’s Deputy Head and Head of Pastoral Care. It reduced me to a plethora of emotions – jealousy that I don’t get to be five years old again, but perhaps more prominently pride at quite how far our country has come since Section 28. As Kate herself accurately noted, “It’s been kind of a journey.”

Stonewall School Champion Bronze

Congratulations on the award, you must be very proud. Tell us how this all started. 

It started with a child we had who was beginning to transition, and we realised that we needed to do something to make that child feel more comfortable within the school. We were also aware that there were other children in school that may not feel completely comfortable but were just too young to articulate it. We decided that there were some important steps that we could put in place that would make a difference for them.

What was the actual process of making these changes?

We had a general chat with some of the year groups in PSHCE lessons about what we could do in school to make things better if we had a child who didn’t feel comfortable in the body that they were born in, or if they weren’t sure how they felt about their relationships with other people. Straight away, the children said, “It’s not fair that the boys can wear trousers and the girls have to wear a skirt,” because the girls wanted to be able to go on the climbing frame without feeling different. The children first came up with the idea of changing the uniform to make it more gender-neutral. That led on to them saying that sometimes people might not be sure if they wanted to use the boys’ toilet or the girls’ toilet – we could just have a toilet, because it doesn’t matter. It really came from the children – we were already thinking along those lines, but we wanted to make sure that we were consulting them in the process.

St Mary's 2

That’s really nice that it came from them.

Yes, it definitely did. At the time we were doing sports day where it was split into boys and girls for races. They wanted to make sure that if they were playing matches it didn’t matter if they were in the boys’ or the girls’ team, that it wasn’t separated.

 

How did these changes come into place?

The uniform took a little bit more work to change, because we needed to sort things out with suppliers and decide the sort of gender-neutral uniform we could have without losing our ‘identity’ as a school. Basically, we now have an ‘option 1’ uniform and ‘option 2’ uniform. The children that we felt may have needed that, have benefited from it, as well as some we hadn’t anticipated. Then the sport – it was easy for us to change our internal provision straight away. It’s been more of a challenge going to other schools that are still doing boys’ sports or girls’ specific sports. So, it does make things a bit difficult when we are arranging matches, but wherever a home fixture is planned, it will be very much done on a non-gendered basis.

 

What effect would you say this has actually had on the children?

I think that they just feel more equal. You can see that some children are more comfortable wearing the uniform and playing the sports that they want and using the toilets – they are now gender-neutral. We still have two gender-specific toilets, so there’s an option for everybody. Children who do very clearly want to remain gendered can, and ones that don’t, don’t have to.

 

Do you think it’s important to start talking about these things at a younger age?

Absolutely – so that a child doesn’t ever get to a point where they feel ashamed, or worried about feeling differently inside. Our lessons, right from the beginning of school, are establishing the fact that it is ok to be and feel different; you just have to talk about it. There’s a lot of the mental health side of things that go along with this as well. That helps with all sorts of children, whether it’s anything to do with LGBT+, or SEN [Special Educational Needs], or even just feeling that their situation at home is different; whatever it might be. It’s covering everything across the board. I do think it’s hugely important to talk about it early and to be honest with your conversations.

 St Mary's 1

How have the staff been?

Very supportive. For some people I think it was a very new experience and they needed that time to adjust, but everybody has been completely on board. All of us are trying to use our language, to not say ‘come on guys’, but to say ‘come on team’ instead to try and make sure our language is gender-neutral as well. That’s the hardest thing, to change the language you use on a daily basis.

 

Have the responses from the parents been positive?

Incredibly so. We have had some questions, but they were very matter-of-fact and just wanting to know why we were doing certain things. Once that was explained, everybody has been fully on board.

Oh, that’s really lovely, particularly given how LGBT+ inclusive education has made headlines recently. Can you recall what it was like to be a teacher when Section 28 was in action?

I think it was quite different for us in primary education compared to secondary. However, we certainly wouldn’t have had lessons about the fact that it was ok to have two mummies, or two daddies. We always knew, I think, when there were certain children who weren’t feeling comfortable in their own bodies, but nothing would ever have been done about it at that time. We didn’t talk as openly about relationships that age. I think the new legislation – the new PSHCE policies and RSE guidelines – are going to be hugely helpful.

I think it’s going to be hugely impactful. Even if it’s not for the people who feel they are part of the LGBT+ community, it will be helping the other students learn how to accept them. 

Exactly. If you’re inclusive, you are inclusive for all. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s making that person feel different, that’s kind of irrelevant. You’re accepting everybody, nurturing them and making sure that they have the best possible start.

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