LGBT school staff network in Northern Ireland could create 'tension'

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

image copyrightPAcemaker
image captionOne Education board member said plans for such an staff LGBT network had the potential to create "tension" in schools

The chair of the Education Authority (EA) has expressed concern that plans for an LGBT staff network are generating "substantial discussion" at board meetings.

That is according to as-yet unpublished draft EA board minutes seen by the BBC.

Sharon O'Connor is recorded as making the comments during the board's meeting on 23 May 2019.

According to the EA's draft business plan, the details of an LGBT network were to be in place by 30 June 2019.

They were due to be approved at May's meeting.

'Tension' in schools

However that was delayed as some board members wanted more information on what an LGBT staff network would involve.

One unidentified board member said plans for such a network had the potential to create "tension" in schools.

A leading Unison trade union official has expressed concern about the delay and said LGBT staff networks are common across the public sector.

They usually allow LGBT staff to get to know each other through both formal and informal events.

The discussion over the EA network took place while the board were discussing the authority's draft business plan for 2019/20 at the 23 May meeting.

image captionSharon O'Connor became the chair of the Education Authority in April 2015

A member said the board had not been given enough information about the proposed LGBT network and asked for consideration of the business plan to be deferred until that information was provided.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the member "said that the issue concerning staff networks would equally apply to teaching staff in schools".

"He drew attention to a possible outworking of a staff network where a tension could arise between a member of staff and a Board of Governors, which related to the ethos of that school," the minutes said.

During the subsequent discussion, another member said the draft business plan was "heavily weighted towards HR issues and that it should prioritise activities that were child centred".

'Moral line on the issue'

However, some of the other 21 board members expressed support for the proposed network.

According to the minutes "the chair recorded her concern that substantial discussion was being given to the LGBT staff network at board and committee meetings and not to any other activities set out in the plan".

Unison's regional organiser Fidelma Carolan, who also has responsibility for LGBT issues, told BBC News NI that a staff network was important in promoting inclusive workplaces.

"Any delay due to the board sends a really negative message to LGBT people working for the EA," she said.

"There have been no similar concerns raised about a disability staff network, for instance.

"We believe some people have taken a moral line on the issue."

In a statement, the EA's director of human resources Clare Duffield said the authority were making progress on equality and disability action plans.

"We have a diverse workforce who inspire, support and challenge children and young people to be the best they can be, whether that's in our schools, other educational settings or through the services we provide," she said.

"We want EA to be a great place to work and to develop all our people.

"We have a wide range of diversity and inclusion initiatives that support our colleagues. We will continue to support our staff."

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