Northern Ireland news

Teachers must encourage pupils to embrace difference, union urges

Avril Hall Callaghan, UTU General Secretary

TEACHERS should encourage their pupils to celebrate difference "rather than fearing or ridiculing it", a union has urged.

The Ulster teachers' Union (UTU) said it wanted to see a united and shared society, one that was at ease with its diversity.

A Department of Education survey recently revealed that two-thirds of LGBT pupils in schools in the north felt "unwelcome".

With reports that `Strictly Come Dancing' is to feature same-sex dances, the UTU said now was the time to address the wider issue of equality of opportunity for all.

Union general secretary Avril Hall Callaghan said with sexual equality now written into the statute book, "it's ironic that the Strictly story should provoke any debate at all".

She added, however, that it does gave people an opportunity to highlight the importance of inclusion, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or race.

"As a union we want a united and shared society, a society at ease with its diversity. Only last year the Department of Education published a survey which revealed that two-thirds of LGBT pupils in schools here felt unwelcome," she said.

"As the educators of tomorrow's workforce, teachers must lead by example. We should instil into students the importance of equality and encourage them to celebrate difference rather than fearing or ridiculing it.

"As a profession we must also ensure that we are encouraging children to do as we do and not just as we say for, given the statistics, Northern Ireland must have – at the very least - hundreds of LGBT teachers."

Ms Hall Callaghan said it would be appalling to think that a teacher would face discrimination in Northern Ireland because of their race or religion.

"We must now ensure that prejudice against their sexual orientation is not a barrier either," she added.

"The insidiousness of the issue adds to its sensitivity and we need a cultural and societal change if we are to address it fully. For rather than having full-blown discrimination against LGBTQ teachers and pupils, they are often encountering more subtle – intentional or not – but nonetheless totally unacceptable in this day and age.

"As young people grow up, however, we can only hope that this mindset will be addressed. A number of schools in Northern Ireland have already established Gay-Straight Alliance groups where these issues can be openly and non-judgementally discussed. But as yet, such schools are sadly in the very great minority."

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