30 November 2018

The Value of a Gold Standard

Bryanston was recently delighted and honoured to be awarded Stonewall’s Gold School Champion Award in recognition of the school’s work over the past three years with regard to LGBT+ awareness and inclusion. Ian McClary, the school’s LGBT+ lead, writes…

On 6 September 2018 the Indian Supreme Court unanimously voted to repeal its colonial-era law which criminalised homosexuality - a cause for great celebration, not only for India’s LGBT+ community, but also for countless others who want them to be able to live and love, free from fear and discrimination. There might well be a long way to go before prevailing attitudes catch up with this change, but it is nevertheless an important step forward in the world’s largest democracy.

It wasn’t so very long ago that the UK took a similar, though more tentative step, in 1967, to partially decriminalise homosexuality. Indeed, it wasn’t until the first decade of the 21st Century that we made the more significant strides forward, both in terms of legislation and general attitudes. Many will remember the controversial Section 28 of the Local Government Act, introduced in 1988, which effectively ensured a culture of silence about and discrimination of LGBT+ people and issues in schools until 2003, when it was repealed. The only positive aspect of its legacy (and, I am sure, an unintended one on the part of the government at the time) was that it inspired the formation of Stonewall, which has become the largest LGBT rights charity in Europe.

Their extremely successful School Champions Programme is something that Bryanston has been
involved with since 2015, and has helped us to make our own strides forward with regard to LGBT awareness and inclusion. Each year we have worked towards a range of increasingly ambitious targets relating to school policies, challenging homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (HBT), supporting LGBT+ pupils and embedding awareness in the wider curriculum and the school community. In 2016 we achieved their Bronze award in recognition of our efforts and, in 2017, their Silver award for our continued work in these areas. This year we become one of only a handful of schools in the UK to be granted their Gold award as we demonstrate sustained evidence of our long-term commitment to LGBT+ inclusion and awareness in the school.

So what do these awards say about us as a school? Bryanston has always been a school in which the individual can thrive, but we tended to assume that we were LGBT+ aware and inclusive without doing anything actively about it. These awards demonstrate not only that we have thought a great deal about how we operate and what life is like at Bryanston for LGBT+ people, but also that we have been much more proactive in ‘promot[ing] respect and understanding of LGBT+ people and issues’ (Equality Act 2010). But we haven’t done it as a box ticking exercise simply to comply with this particular piece of legislation. Nor has it been just about getting the award, but rather embedding best practice and ensuring that it continues. Just as in the classroom - it’s not the qualification but rather the journey of learning taken as a whole which is more important. It is wonderful, of course, to know that we have achieved Stonewall’s gold standard, but we are acutely aware that our work does not end here; indeed, once a standard is reached it needs to be maintained - in a community which replenishes itself by almost a quarter each year, we need to continue to encourage and support, and celebrate. 

Where the School Champions awards have been extremely useful is by helping Bryanston to structure its work as we develop and evolve in this area. Take our dress code for example: it was always possible to wear it in a gender-neutral way but its most recent iteration has now evolved to be fully inclusive of trans and non-binary identities. Furthermore, our pupil-led Equality Society is now in its fifth year - the result of sustained interest and effort on the part of the pupils who regularly meet to explore a range of issues relating to equality, diversity and human rights, including sexuality and gender identity. I hope that LGBT+ pupils at Bryanston feel increasingly comfortable being who they are at school and coming out if they feel the time is right for them. I hope they, and all pupils, know that any form of HBT language or behaviour is unacceptable at Bryanston, that LGBT+ pupils (and staff) are valued for who they are, and that they are, in the words of Stonewall’s motto, ‘[accepted] without exception’.

As an OB and recent A2 Current Affairs speaker put it, ‘Returning to Bryanston after 25 years it was inspiring to see the journey of inclusion the school has been on. When I was at the school, Section 28 was still in force, the HIV epidemic prompted scaremongering which demonised gay people and the only time trans people were visible was in freakshow journalism - it wasn’t a good time for me to be a gay teenager struggling with their sexuality and I can’t say those memories are my happiest. To see now how the school is embedding inclusion across policies is great, but what is really inspiring is the way it is manifesting this in the culture and ethos of the school so that every young person in its care can truly find their authentic self in a supportive environment where teachers and pupils are visible allies and stepping up to create a more inclusive future’. (1)

It’s important to ensure that all our pupils thrive, including the 10% of our pupils who do not identify as heterosexual or who are questioning their gender identity (2). Uninformed young people are vulnerable young people, LGBT+ or otherwise, and it is concerning that LGBT+ young people experience higher rates of mental ill health on account of negative stereotypes, prejudice and HBT (3). Although this is, I am glad to say, gradually being reduced in the UK, thanks in no small part to the work of organisations like Stonewall, we need to continue to ensure, for our part, that Bryanston is a welcoming, respectful and supportive community for LGBT+ people. Having been privileged enough to have had the opportunity to celebrate our wedding at school, my husband and I can attest to just how welcoming it is!

(1) Dr Justin Varney OB - National Strategic Advisor, Public Health England.
(2) Bryanston School pupil LGBT survey 2016.
(3) Stonewall School Report 2017.

16 November 2018

The Selfie Generation

During a time when social media is talked about daily in the news, Edrys Barkham, experienced tutor and former hsm, discusses the impact of these digital channels on children and offers some guidance on how to manage your child's screen time...

Our children are living in a time of radical social and technological change, and perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of this is the ‘selfie’. This is the image of ourselves that we present to the world using social media through our smart phones. Social media was designed to broaden and deepen connections between people, and make loneliness a thing of the past, but increasingly research is showing that it does the opposite and can actually make us feel more isolated and depressed the more time we spend using it.

Social media is having a major impact on how our children see themselves and live their lives and, as our adolescents are growing up better connected, there is a greater potential for them to be more depressed than previous generations.

Children who are ‘digital natives’ have always lived with social media, smart phones and electronic tablets. They have been called the ‘iGen’ by American psychologist, Jean Twenge, who considers them to be more compliant and less prepared for adulthood than any other generation. It was thought that access to social media and the world of information would make children grow up more quickly, but paradoxically it seems to be having the opposite effect and teenagers are in fact taking longer to grow up than ever before. This may be because they do not spend as much time with friends face-to-face as teens did 10 or 20 years ago. They are less likely to leave their home without their parents, meet up with friends or go to the shops or parties. They are less likely to do the things that adults do and children don’t: they are less likely to get their driving licence at 17 or 18 years, to drink alcohol, to have a paid job, or to have sex - childhood seems to have extended into adolescence.

There are benefits to growing up slowly and it has been a long-term trend in the Western world since the Victorian era. In evolutionary terms, a slow-life strategy for having fewer children means it is more likely that offspring survive because they can be nurtured more carefully, with a longer period for education. This means that children take longer to grow up because they are being more carefully protected for a longer and longer period of time.

How does social media affect sense of self?

Possibly the biggest negative effect of social media is that adolescents can spend even more time comparing themselves to increasing numbers of their peers. It is not surprising that our teenagers ‘see’ that their friends are leading more glamorous lives, having more fun and are better looking than they are. What they don’t seem to realise is that each photo displayed on their phones is carefully selected or even staged to present the perfect image. Their friends may have had a terrible day, but posted a picture of the one good thing that happened where they looked good and everyone around them looked happy. Social media is heavily curated so it doesn’t give anything like a real picture of other people’s lives, just the highlights of the good things. When adolescents believe that these images reflect real life then depression can develop as they aren’t able to reproduce this type of ‘reality’ in their own lives.

Despite there being a better understanding of how the brain works and greater insight into psychology than ever before, iGeners appear to be mentally fragile teenagers. They are the most physically safe and carefully protected generation, and they are exposed to fewer difficulties and they take fewer risks. And yet they report greater levels of anxiety, are more likely to self-harm and levels of depression are on the rise. Is there a connection, I wonder?

Increasingly schools are developing their social media policies to help their pupils understand how they negotiate the minefield of postings through their adolescence. Bryanston ensures that younger pupils have more controlled access to social media by limiting the times when they are allowed to use their electronic devices. Charging lockers ensure their phone and tablet are secure but inaccessible for most of the day and overnight. After classes, a wide range of activities mean that pupils have to talk to and work with each other face-to-face to solve problems and engage in the real world rather than virtual reality. As pupils get older they are given more access to their phones, but they also follow a programme of education about the benefits and dangers of social media. Social clubs, the café and house common rooms all give pupils the space to be with each other, to talk and to realise that no one really lives an ideal life. 

The weekly opportunity to speak openly and on a one-to-one basis with their tutor is strongly valued by pupils, and in the annual Pupil Voice feedback they always tell us how much they appreciate the advice and direction they receive from their tutor. Mobiles are not acceptable in the classroom and staff are themselves encouraged to model responsible behaviour with their own mobile devices and talk to the pupils about sensible use of social media.

However, children often see their parents posting on Instagram and Facebook, modelling in effect the behaviour they want their children to avoid. Allowing children to binge watch YouTube or Netflix is a temptation for parents as it enables them to “get things done”. Children often have unfettered use of mobile phones in the car for a peaceful journey, or to keep them amused, so that parents can talk to their friends at social events.

There is no doubt that parents and schools have a role to play in teaching children how to use social media, but the aim must be for adolescents to learn to use it responsibly and to be more astute about what they see posted.

Here are some simple rules to introduce when you give your child their first mobile phone:
  • Establish when the child will have access to the phone and when they don’t
  • Don’t allow the phone in the bedroom overnight
  • There should be no use of the phone by any member of the family during meal times
  • Talk to your child about the best way to communicate with their friends – you set the expectations rather than have your child learn from experience
  • Model the behaviour you expect from your child through your own use of your phone.