Strange times

What a puzzling time to be alive. In the world that surrounds us, beauty and the comforting familiarity of seasonal rhythms. The ospreys have returned from West Africa and are putting on a grand fishing display in Findhorn Bay.

The last of the winter snow still lies deep on the mountaintops, glistening and melting in the now warm spring sunshine. (I spent last weekend walking in the magnificence of the Highlands and am now sporting a deep sun-snow tan.) We wait for the return of the swallows in the next week or so and the long, northern evenings hold out the promise of the return of life in all its fullness.

And yet, news carried on the wind speaks of melting ice, food riots and starvation and, closer to home, fuel strikes and long queues and fights at the petrol stations. Meanwhile, oil expert Matt Simmons declares it to be entirely feasible that petrol will rise in price to $300 a barrel within the next five years.

All this focuses our minds sharply. Since the end of the Positive Energy conference a month or so ago, there have been numerous gatherings to re-watch DVDs of conference presentations and to explore what the building storm means for us as a community and for the bioregion of which we form a part. Plans for basic skills training programmes are hatched and a hundred plans to build resilience into our systems take shape.

But how does all this news of the unravelling of the natural world and of global society land with the young people who are on the point of moving into their inheritance? Old enough to understand the implications but not generally yet in positions of power to be able to do much about it, how must the current unravelling feel?

We have with us at present a group of 13 students from US universities, here under the aegis of the Living Routes educational programme http://www.livingroutes.org/. I would say that among the strongest emotions they display is one of impatience and a desire to get stuck in, to ‘do something’.

So, while there is a general appreciation of the need for a sound theoretical understanding of how the world works – and how it can be made to work a whole lot better – I find with this group of students, as with none I have worked with before, a real urgency to engage on a very practical level. They demonstrate a highly commendable desire to use what power and control they do have to make a difference in their own backyard.

So it is that today, they are hard at work beautifying the area around an old RAF bunker (the land that the community sits on used to be part of the neighbouring air base). This involves clearing it out, disposing responsibly of the rubbish and creating ‘seed-balls’ – flower seeds folded into balls of the earth they dig out of the bunker that they will then distribute around the area at the end of the day.

This is formally part of their educational programme – their ‘service learning’ project, where they have an opportunity to create something of beauty for the community. Through the summer and autumn, we will remember their smiling faces as the woods teem with colour and fragrance.

This may seem like a fairly paltry response to sheer scale of the challenges that lie before us. And yet, all journeys begin with the first, small steps. To identify that over which one has control and to choose to exercise that control to create beauty is a fine first step.

The woods this morning felt alive with the positive energy of young people choosing to make a creative difference in their own backyard. They will carry the memory of the morning in the cells of their bodies – and all will be the richer for it.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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