A youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) children has announced controversial plans to open up the UK’s first school for gay pupils in Manchester. The campaigners behind the project claim it will offer a safe haven for gay pupils, but critics have slammed the plan as divisive.
After a visit to the Harvey Milk school in New York which caters for LGBT youths, Amelia Lee of LGBT Youth North West has announced plans to open a school catering for LGBT youths who have suffered homophobic bullying, as a safe haven in which they can be educated in an understanding environment.
“Teachers in mainstream schools have problems in tackling issues like homophobic bullying and coming out,” she said, the Daily Mail has reported. “Unfortunately, schools can be one of the last bastions of homophobia.
“We have also seen tragic cases such as that of Elizabeth Lowe, a 14-year-old who committed suicide in a park in Manchester because she was struggling with coming out and was worried about telling her parents.
“It’s to combat problems like those that we want to work with schools and pupil referral units to help young people who are struggling in mainstream education.”
LBGT Youth North West, who are part funded by the taxpayer, has conducted a survey which found that many teachers were unsupportive, telling pupils to “ignore” bullying, Miss Lee said.
However, the idea has been met with harsh criticism. Conservative MP and former education minister Tim Loughton said: “We need to do a lot more to combat homophobic bullying and to create a more tolerant society. But I cannot see how segregating a group of young people identified by their sexuality can aid better engagement and understanding.
“The way to achieve more integration, understanding and empathy is not by segregating members of one group, and this would seem to me to be a step backwards from achieving tolerance.’
Indeed, opponents of grammar schools have long argued that those schools categorise children too early as either academic or non-academic, when in reality children may be late developers. What is a perfectly reasonable concept in terms of ability appears not to have occurred to Miss Lee and her colleagues in terms of identity.
UKIP’s deputy leader and education spokesman, Paul Nuttall said: “This idea does nothing but foster division. At a time that successive governments have closed all but a few special schools, why this sudden exception, if not for reasons of political correctness? Integration is the key to understanding, and it is utterly bizarre to be taking a step that highlights differences and adds nothing of value to a child’s education.”
The idea has received mixed support from government. LGBT Youth North West has previously received a grant of £63,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government in order to purchase a building in which to locate the group, now dubbed the Joyce Layland LGBT Centre in central Manchester.
They used part of that money to fund a feasibility study into the school, although the trip to New York taken by Miss Lee was self-financed. The Department has clarified that the grant was intended only to assist with the purchase of the building from Manchester Council, not for scoping a school, with a spokesman saying: “The Department for Communities and Local Government has not funded this school. Rather, through the organisation Social Investment Business, grants have been given to local areas wishing to run buildings for community uses.”
However, a spokesman for Manchester City Council said “We supported LGBT Youth NW in their bid for funding to look at the feasibility of expanding their premises and developing the work they do.
“One of their development ambitions is around how they might make additional educational support available to LGBT young people. We’ve had an initial discussion with them about that, but there are no current plans that we’re aware of to open a LGBT school in the city.”
Miss Lee has indicated that she wants to wait until after the general election before putting in a bid to open a free school, although she hopes the first pupils will attend in three years’ time. “The last thing we want is for young people to fall out of mainstream education permanently, or for this to become a ghetto for lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
“This would be somewhere that students who are struggling with the negative effects of issues like bullying could attend classes for a period of time while ensuring they get the grades they are capable of,” she said, adding that the school would also be open to heterosexual children more comfortable within the schools environment, or those questioning their sexuality.
She explained that the intention is for two thirds of the 60 pupils to attend full time, with the remainder attending one or more days a week. Children would also not enrol as their first choice for a secondary, but would need to be referred if they were having problems, staying for a year or so.
A source close to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told the Mail: “There is simply no way that we will approve a free school specifically for LGBT young people. Pupils regardless of their sexuality should be educated in mainstream schools which should be equipped to tackle any bullying that should occur.”