The moment you walk through the doors of London’s Alfred Salter Primary School and are asked to read and understand its ‘equality statement’, it’s clear this is no ordinary school.
Colorful display boards speak of tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness, things that were largely absent from my own school days.
The school may not be unique in the UK for its progressive attitude, but where it is leading the way is in the strong stance it has taken on homophobic bullying.
Started around 18 months ago, the school’s Inclusion for All program puts homophobia firmly on the anti-bullying agenda and was pioneered by openly gay deputy head Shaun Dellenty.
From challenging stereotypes to including positive gay role models and alternative families on the teaching curriculum, the initiative’s aim is to dispel the fear and ignorance surrounding the issue of homophobia and provide everyone at the school with the knowledge and tools to be able to tackle the problem at its core.
After noticing any pupil incident involving gay issues was automatically referred to him, Dellenty decided to find out why his colleagues were unable to deal with the problem themselves and distributed questionnaires to all the staff.
‘What came out of that was that people were frightened they would say the wrong thing,’ said Dellenty, who himself was a victim of homophobic bullying at school.
He added: ‘When I first came to this school 10 years ago people would say that about racism as well.
‘So, there was a genuine desire on behalf of some people to want to tackle it but they just weren’t equipped.
‘They would therefore say nothing and send the child to the token gay to deal with it.
‘So I kind of wanted to get my own house in order.’
With around 100 staff in a school of nearly 500 children, including nursery, Dellenty understood the pressures many teachers were under, but was deeply concerned they were not dealing with an issue which was rearing its ugly head again and again.
His suspicions were confirmed upon closer inspection of the questionnaires.
After crunching that data, he discovered 75% of children were hearing the word gay used in a derogatory way on a daily basis.
It also revealed 64% of staff felt that using the phrase 'you're so gay' and 'that's so gay' did not class as homophobic bullying.
And worryingly, 65% of staff felt less equipped to deal with homophobia than with other types of bullying.
But with children as young as three at the school, are the pupils really ready to be taught about sexuality or even able to understand the sensitive issues which discussion of the subject throws up?
‘In the initial set of training I did here, that came up a lot as one of the reasons why people thought it shouldn’t be tackled,’ admitted Dellenty.
‘A lot of the lunchtime supervisors said, “Oh, they don’t mean it. They don’t know what it means.”
‘So, I asked them to send the child to me for a chat. In the majority of cases what they said to me was different to what they said to the lunchtime supervisor. That’s not uncommon because I’m more senior.
‘When I challenged them about their use of the word gay, the majority of the children said it was when two men or women love each other, so they did understand. In nine out of 10 cases, they knew exactly what they were saying.
‘What it taught me was it comes back to people not wanting to deal with it.’
Training, therefore, became his first priority and after a day of discussion and role-play, a school-wide list of appropriate ways to tackle homophobic abuse was drawn up by staff.
And the results of the scheme have been impressive, with no reported incidents of homophobia or racism in the last year.
Dellenty said: ‘The children are much better at policing each other now and it has had a knock-on effect in terms of their relationships with each other.
‘The children are really saying they feel much more celebrated and have a sense of belonging.’
Pupils Ruby Tuesday and Chloe Vermaak seem to agree.
‘Just because somebody’s different doesn’t mean that they’re bad,’ 11-year-old Chloe said.
Ruby, also 11, says she was shocked when she learnt about how gay people are bullied.
She said: ‘They’re still people. They just have different likes.’
Amazingly, there has been little opposition to the program from parents.
Dellenty explains they used the school's anti-bullying week as a way to discuss the issue of homophobia.
He said: ‘We wrote to the parents saying we were going to be doing a lot about bullying and in that letter to parents we did a paragraph about anti-homophobic bullying.
‘So it was there alongside everything else and that’s very much the tact I take with staff and parents. We shouldn’t have to make a fuss about the issue because it should just be the norm alongside all these other sets of characteristics.
‘I was very clear on that point to staff. I turned around to them and said jokingly, “I’m not turning this into a gay school. We’re not going gay. We’re just bringing the issue of homophobia up to speed with the others.”’
So successful is the program that Dellenty has taken it to other schools in the south-east London borough of Southwark and has got on board with gay rights group Stonewall, making a video for its It Gets Better Today campaign.
‘Being gay is just another form of identity,’ he added.
‘I tried to strip away that notion of sexual orientation. Because that’s a massive barrier for people in schools.
‘The minute you start talking about that, people think you are going to start talking about sex. It’s not about sex. It’s about identity and loving relationships and the networks of affection these pupils experience.’