The majority of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender and other gender and sexual minority (LGBT+) secondary school students in New Zealand are well, achieve at school, and are more likely to volunteer to support their community than other secondary school students.
However, persistent, and unfair inequalities for LGBT+ secondary school students have been well documented. Since the turn of this century, studies have demonstrated that LGBT+ students were significantly more likely to be bullied, and fear for their safety at school, when compared to other students. This bullying, and the stress it produces, is linked to the overall higher rates of mental health issues reported by these students. Distressingly, recent evidence shows such inequalities have remained intractably high.
Academic achievement is important for wellbeing. Higher secondary school achievement is associated with significantly improved adult health and economic wellbeing. The importance placed on education as an inalienable human right reflects the significance of supporting children and young people to develop their personality and sense of self, as well as their vocational opportunities. Given the inequalities facing LGBT+ students at school from bullying, how might schools ensure that such barriers do not also affect their right to education and achievement?
Our study, using a nationally representative sample of more than 7000 students, is the first nationally to demonstrate the positive impact of LGBT+ supportive schools on student achievement. Just over one in ten of the students in the study said they were same- or both-sex attracted and/or transgender, or questioning their gender and sexual identity.
We found that bullying reduced the chances of achievement on average by half for the LGBT+ students. However, when those students who were bullied also reported that they felt as though they belonged at their school, and had teachers with high expectations of them, bullying no longer had any negative impact on their chances of achieving.
Schools have powerful tools at their disposal that will help give LGBT+ students equal opportunities to achieve. Unlike peer-based bullying, cultivating belonging at school is something teachers, staff, and principals have more direct power over. For instance, with appropriate support teachers can ensure that LGBT+ topics and themes are appropriately acknowledged and positively represented in all subjects that they teach, including sexuality education.
Subject matter inclusion demonstrates to all students, especially LGBT+ ones, that they are recognised and belong both at school and in society. Teachers and school staff who are well trained to intervene in homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying and slurs in the classroom can also demonstrate that the school has an inclusive attitude to all forms of diversity.
The results from our study on the impact of teacher expectation on achievement for LGBT+ students, and LGB students in particular, were staggering.
School leaders, including principals, have a very powerful role in producing a sense of belonging for LGBT+ students. A key way to do so is to strongly support and resource the development of student diversity groups, including gender and sexuality alliance groups that can be powerhouses of inclusion and transformation if the senior leadership team is able to work productively with them.
School leaders also play a key role in ensuring that anti-bias bullying policies are developed and enforced in the school, including registers of bias-related bullying. Belonging can also be enhanced when other supportive policies are supported, including that LGBT+ students can take same or different gendered partners to social events, and have equivalent rules around displays of romantic attraction at school.
The results from our study on the impact of teacher expectation on achievement for LGBT+ students, and LGB students in particular, were staggering. LGB students who said that people at school had high expectations of them had 14 times greater odds of achieving compared to LGB students who did not have supportive teachers.
Ensuring that all teachers have access to professional learning and development to support them to cultivate and communicate high expectations to LGBT+ students is a vital priority for the senior leadership team. School leaders can also ensure that school pastoral care staff, like school nurses and counsellors, have adequate professional development about supporting LGBT+ students.
Our findings also indicate that just providing supportive structures for LGB students is insufficient to support transgender and gender minority student achievement. In fact, while the provision of LG supportive structures increased LGB student chances of achievement three-fold, it made no difference for transgender and gender minority students’ achievement. This reflects how transgender and gender minority young people have additional needs to lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
Teachers and all staff in the school have a particularly powerful role in supporting transgender and gender minority student belonging. Using the correct names and pronouns (e.g., he, him, they, them, she, her, etc.) demonstrates acceptance, and in so doing fosters belonging. Physical education teachers and sport staff play a key role in ensuring that such students can participate in appropriate gendered and/or nongendered sports teams and events.
The school’s leadership team can support these students’ sense of belonging by ensuring that they can access and use appropriate bathrooms and changing rooms easily and safely. Inclusive uniform policies can help these students use clothing options that are appropriate to their gender identity. While, administrators and pastoral care staff can ensure that correct names and pronouns are used in academic records and formal communication, as well as retaining privacy over who is aware of their gender transition status.
The research shows that schools have a range of options at their disposal, and that fostering belonging provides opportunities for all staff in schools to support and improve LGBT+ student achievement. Every person at school, no matter what their role, has the opportunity, and duty, right now, to foster belonging for LGBT+ students, who deserve equal opportunities to learn.