Courageous Leaders: Promoting and Supporting Diversity in School


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Author: Catherine Lee

Few would disagree that in order to flourish educationally, young people need access to diverse role models, committed teachers and authentic school leaders. There are almost 500,000 full time equivalent teachers in the UK, and 20,000 Headteachers (Torrance,, 2017). It is commonly recognised that one in ten of the UK population is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and so it is feasible that there are as many as 50,000 LGBT teachers in UK schools.

Courageous Leaders is the United Kingdom’s first LGBT School Leadership programme. Based on the values of authentic leadership, promoting inclusion, celebrating diversity, accepting difference, challenging the status quo, and achieving social justice, the Courageous Leaders programme provides mentoring, training and support for LGBT teachers aspiring to become school leaders.

There is evidence to suggest that schools are particularly challenging environments for LGBT teachers. Despite advances in equalities legislation, evidence suggests that many LGBT teachers do not yet feel adequately protected in schools. The recent school gate protests about LGBT Relationships and Health Education shows vividly that sexual identity still has the potential to create moral panic in schools.

Courageous Leaders has worked with over 40 teachers from across the UK since it was established in 2016. In addition to helping LGBT teachers seek and gain leadership roles, Courageous Leaders encourages teachers to be their authentic selves in the workplace and be role models to their students.

Two months after the end of the programme in 2017-18, participants were invited by email to complete a written evaluation of the programme and could opt in at this point for their evaluation to be used as part of the data sample for this article. The evaluation form sought qualitative free text written comments reflecting on their experiences of the programme, as well as its subsequent effect on their professional identity and behaviour once back in the workplace.

Eight out of ten of the 2017-8 cohort achieved the promotion they initially aimed for within the year. The testimonies of Courageous Leaders alumni showed that once each of the participants was supported to find and embody their authentic LGBT leader self, they went on, with mentor support, to be more successful than they perceived they would have been without the support of the programme, and the networks and supportive community it also provided.

The quotation below from Fraser* captures the benefits of participation for him and is typical of several similar testimonies:

The network of people I met through the programme made me feel braver and more able to make further leaps up the career ladder.  As a direct result of this programme, I had the confidence to pursue my dream of becoming a Head of School (Fraser*).

Joanne* a sixth form Science teacher for ten years, captures the way in which the programme spurred her on to achieve promotion as Head of Sixth Form within a multi-academy trust.

My mentor provided me with the confidence to be myself and take my whole self to work. With this increased confidence, I was motivated to apply for a promotion I thought was beyond me. This is just the beginning, as a result of working with my mentor, I definitely will apply for further senior leadership roles in future (Joanne*).

One of the participants not achieving promotion, gained from the programme in other ways. Andrew*, a gay male teacher wrote:

As a result of this course I feel more open and confident at school. I have set up the school’s Equality and Diversity society, and am much more open about my personal life… I have also organised the school’s first ‘diversity week’ and have confidently challenged staff and students who were resistant to taking part (Andrew*).

Challenging the attitudes of others, as Andrew did, is an important leadership trait, and school leaders who provide visible and vocal support for institutional change around diversity play an important role in promoting equality as the responsibility of all school.

When LGBT leaders become visible within our schools, they embody a distinct type of leadership that challenges the more traditional ‘pale, male and stale’ conceptualisations of school leadership. 

The Courageous Leaders programme has so far been able to support fewer than 0.01% of the LGBT teacher population. At a time when the average length of service for a Headteacher in the UK is just three years, Courageous Leaders demonstrates that specific leadership programmes (see also Women Ed and BAME Ed), presents an important vehicle for improving the diversity of teacher leaders, and facilitating school cultures which enable teachers to be their authentic selves and flourish within the profession.

*Pseudonyms are used throughout.

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Dr Catherine Lee is Deputy Dean for Education at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and Chelmsford. She is a mentor on Courageous Leaders, the UK's only Leadership Programme for LGBT teachers. In July 2019, Catherine was  named by the Independent Newspaper as one of the top 100 LGBT individuals in the UK, for her work and research on LGBT school leadership.

Follow Catherine on twitter @DrCatherineLee


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