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Education: Transforming the career prospects of LGBTQ+ teachers: A programme to help them secure school leadership roles

Prof Catherine Lee

ARU research on the challenges to career advancement faced by LGBTQ+ teachers has helped increase the number of LGBT teachers in school leadership roles in the UK.

Prof Lee’s work led her to design, set up and deliver the Courageous Leaders Programme, which has improved the diversity of teacher leaders, enabled LGBTQ+ teachers to be their authentic selves, and transformed school cultures.

Catherine Lee

Prof Catherine Lee

Catherine is Professor of Inclusive Education at ARU and Leadership and a National Teaching Fellow. She has expertise in education and teaching, equality, diversity and inclusion.

Find out more about Dr Catherine Lee Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

There are an estimated 50,000 LGBTQ+ teachers in UK schools, but almost no openly LGBTQ+ headteachers or senior leaders. Prof Lee’s research found that, despite recent advances in equalities legislation, many LGBTQ+ teachers do not yet feel safe or adequately protected at work, and this inhibits their career development.

Prof Lee wrote an autoethnography – a format combining personal experience with qualitative research – drawing on her own experiences as an LGBT teacher and external data concerning LGBTQ+ teachers in rural schools.

She found that homophobia and heterosexism remain unchallenged in rural areas of the UK, and this has significant consequences for those affected. LGBT teachers feel unable to be open and authentic about their sexuality and/or gender identity, causing a disconnect between how they present themselves personally and professionally.

This conflict, alongside a homophobic and heteronormative workplace culture, impacts LGBTQ+ teachers in rural schools’ mental health, well-being, and identity. Fears surrounding young people and LGBTQ+ identities also makes them the centre of a moral panic.

Prof Lee also investigated the legacy of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988–2003), which stipulated that state schools in local authorities must not ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

She found that LGBTQ+ teachers who had entered the profession during Section 28 were still less open about their sexuality and gender identity to other teachers, pupils and parents, less likely to attend social events in the school community, and more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression based on their sexual identity and role as a teacher, than those who entered the profession after 2003, after Section 28 had been repealed.

Working with partner schools, Prof Lee used her research findings to design, set up and deliver the Courageous Leaders Programme, the UK’s first leadership course exclusively for LGBTQ+ teachers. This programme focussed on empowering LGBTQ+ teachers to challenge heteronormative school practices, and reconcile and celebrate their personal and professional identities. It also encouraged critical reflection and promoted the importance of diverse role models for young people in schools.

The programme had an 80% success rate, supporting 60 teachers to gain promotion to headteacher or senior leader, therefore improving the diversity of teacher leaders. It also helped facilitate school cultures which enable teachers to be their authentic selves and flourish within the profession. After initially funding the programme for two years (2016–2018), the Department for Education (DfE) extended the funding until 2020.

A teacher (blurry due to distance/camera focus) teaching secondary school pupils in a classroom

Summary of the impact

  • Increased the number of LGBTQ+ teachers in school leadership roles in the UK
  • Helped schools become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ staff and students
  • Influenced Department for Education (DfE) policy on Equality and Diversity leadership
  • Raised national and international awareness and understanding of the issues facing LGBTQ+ teachers


Between 2016 and 2020, 79 LGBTQ+ teachers attended the year-long programme, and 60 achieved the career goal they had set for themselves at the start of the programme.

Participants reported that they became more confident and open about their identity at work as a result of the programme, and took action to change school cultures.

Participants originated from around the UK, were based in the state (90%) and independent sectors (10%), and spanned teaching in early years (5%) to sixth form (15%) and further education (5%). Following media interest, the programme also attracted interest from LGBTQ+ teachers outside of the UK.

School leaders made a number of changes as a result of the programme. Three participants from Hearts Academy Trust in Essex were promoted to headteacher, and they made the following whole-school improvements:

  • A new ‘blind’ recruitment process, which has built staff confidence to apply more readily for internal promotion.
  • A revised curriculum which is values- and knowledge-driven and has a more thoughtful and rigorous approach to what is studied, including LGBTQ+-inclusive relationships education.
  • A renewed commitment to staff and student well-being including independent counselling and support, and a staff workload charter recognising work-life balance.

A participant who was promoted to deputy principal in Bedfordshire created two new LGBTQ+ support officer roles in his school, with specific LGBTQ+ related training to augment existing pastoral support and provide LGBTQ+ role models for young people. The school also mandated the inclusion of gender pronouns in all staff email signatures.

A participant who was promoted to deputy headteacher at a faith school came out to the entire school community and set up an LGBTQ+ society. As a result, staff became more confident about challenging other areas of inequality, and an Afro-Caribbean society soon followed. All staff, governors and students at the school now also undertake diversity training.

Read more about more about the impact on schools wishing to be more lgbt inclusive.

Following positive evaluations from participants, the Head of the Career Progression and Innovation Division in the DfE Teacher Workforce Development team invited Prof Lee to provide a summary report to the DfE on her research into the challenges facing LGBTQ+ teachers.

Prof Lee subsequently advised the DfE on how to encourage schools to be more inclusive for LGBTQ+ teachers. The DfE disseminated aspects of her report on their Equality and Diversity Leadership webpages.

In 2019, the DfE invited Lee to help them evaluate the programme, resulting in a summary report based on her research findings. This led to the DfE extending the programme’s funding beyond the original two years (2016–18) to 2020.

The leader of the DfE’s School Leadership observed one of Prof Lee’s programme workshops in June 2019. She said: “I enjoyed joining participants at Courageous Leaders … the programme has certainly been designed and delivered expertly and tailored to participants so well,” and “I certainly took away a lot in terms of how it can inform the work the Department does, what we need to improve and how far we still need to go.”

Read more about more about influencing policy and practice and securing future dfe funding.

In 2020, Prof Lee edited a book, Courage in the Classroom: LGBT Teachers Share Their Stories (Melton: John Catt Publishers), where programme participants share key issues in their lived experiences as LGBTQ+ teachers and recommend how schools can be LGBTQ+ inclusive.

The book has received positive reviews, and the leaders of the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course at University College London have added it to their reading list for trainee teachers.

Prof Lee set up a Courageous Leaders website, which features a number of her research papers and workshop slides. The materials provide an important body of information for school leaders, teachers and policy makers.

She has also coordinated activities online, where LGBTQ+ teachers solve problems together, network, share new opportunities and provide peer support. She has additionally worked with teachers from the Netherlands and New Zealand to set up versions of the programme in their countries.

The programme has attracted media attention. Between 2018 and 2020, Lee raised awareness and understanding of the issues facing LGBTQ+ teachers in rural schools on ITV News, BBC Radio Essex, Talk Radio, three podcasts, and in Pink News and The Guardian.

As a result of her research and work to promote LGBTQ+ teachers, in 2019 Prof Lee was named as one of the top 100 LGBTQ+ people in the UK by The Independent and was a runner-up for an Emerald Publishers’ Real Impact Award.

In 2020, she was nominated as Diversity Champion by Diva magazine, while the Courageous Leaders Programme was a finalist in both the British Diversity Awards and the Pink News Awards.

Read more about more about raising awareness and understanding nationally and internationally.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, target 4.7.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 23: Transforming the career prospects of LGBT teachers: A programme to help them secure school leadership roles (PDF)

The original REF impact case study, which is available to download as a PDF above, uses the term 'LGBT'. We have changed it to 'LGBTQ+' on this webpage.

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