Memorandum submitted by Educational Action
Challenging Homophobia (EACH)
1. Homophobic bullying in schools is a behaviour
issue which has very serious effects on a minority of pupils.
It frequently results in those bullied failing to achieve their
full potential at school, or to their truancy, self-harm and in
some cases, suicide. Such victims may or may not actually be growing
up gay or lesbianthey may merely be thought to be so by
their fellow pupils.
2. When EACH goes into a school to provide
training to the whole staff, or to those responsible for personal,
social and health education [PSHE], we stress that homophobic
bullying is an issue for the whole school, not just for a victimised
minority. It is not a matter of "political correctness".
It is an issue about pupil achievement, pupil behaviour and the
right of parents to feel confident that their child will be safe
3. A school where homophobic bullying is
permitted to continue unchallenged is a school which is not safe
for all its pupils, and where boys in particular usually feel
the need to appear "macho" and are not likely to feel
comfortable about being open about their emotions. Displays of
threatening or violent behaviour are not uncommon, and this will
not infrequently go hand in hand with an attitude that schoolwork
4. Many schools are simply in denial about
the problem. Headteachers will say airily that they are unaware
of any gay or lesbian pupils in their school. Yet in a DfES survey
(2002) 82% of teachers surveyed said they were aware of verbal
incidents and 26% said they were aware of physical incidents of
homophobic bullying. Almost certainly a school with such a headteacher
is a place where such pupils feel unsafe about "coming out".
The word "gay" is likely to be readily used by pupils
as a common insult or disparaging comment, and this can too often
go unchallenged by staff.
5. Yet the likelihood is that a quite significant
proportion of the school roll will be affected by homophobic bullying.
In my own experience of 30 years' teaching in both maintained
and independent schools, day and boarding, single-sex and mixed,
I would expect to be aware of one or two pupils in each form group
of 25-30 pupils who appear to be growing up gay or lesbian. In
a five-stream entry 11-18 comprehensive, this represents some
6. It will readily be seen that if most
of those pupils are under-achieving because of the pressure of
homophobic bullying, this is having quite a serious effect on
that school's performance in SATs, at GCSE and at A-level. It
may well also be affecting attendance and truancy rates.
7. It should also be borne in mind that
the bullies themselves are not happy people. Not infrequently
they are, whether consciously or not, uneasy about their own sexualityboys
wanting to show they are "tough", girls wanting to commit
to a friendship group by excluding a girl who can be picked on
for being too "boyish". Again, such pupils are on the
whole unlikely to be doing very well at school.
8. Homophobic bullying can take many forms.
Most commonly it is verbal abuse, in which a string of insulting
words, jokes and anecdotes are levelled at the "target"
pupil. One victim told me "I was never able to set off down
a corridor at that school without expecting someone to say something
unpleasant to me." To have this kind of abuse over several
years at school can have appalling long-term effects on self-esteem.
Even where the target of such abuse appears to have coped with
the difficulty and survived, it is not unknown for them to develop
severe depression in early adulthood and to take their own lives.
9. Teachers not infrequently respond in
exasperation when confronted with a pupil who has been "outed""Why
can't you just keep your head down? Why do you have to keep drawing
attention to yourself? Be normal like the others!" Quite
apart from the insulting subtext here that the pupil is being
asked to be other than him or herself, and that actually most
of the time the pupil wishes s/he were invisible, that advice
when it is taken too often leads to burying and internalising
the problem with the tragic results described earlier.
10. Not infrequently, verbal abuse can turn
to physical attack. Schoolwork is defaced, clothing ruined, and
victims are set upon (sometimes by several pupils) and beaten
We received a report about a 14-year old girl
who, after disclosing to a friend she might be a lesbian, is now
forced to sit outside the changing rooms before and after sports
lessons until the "normal" children have changed. Another
recent report was of a 16-year old in west London recently who,
after years of being beaten up for being gay, is now provided
with a security guard to accompany him to and from school.
11. In its training, EACH draws attention
to the characteristic isolation of pupils who are the targets
of homophobic bullying. The old joke "Why is it better to
be black than gay?""You don't have to tell your
mother you're black" is highly pertinent. A 14-year old who
is beginning to realise he is gay may know very well that he cannot
possibly confide this to his parents. He may know of no teacher
in whom he would have sufficient confidence to "come out".
To tell his friends is extremely hazardousmany a pupil
has made themselves a target for the whole peer group by sharing
12. It is also quite difficult to lead the
life of an ordinary teenager in these circumstances. "Ordinary"
teenagers go to discos and parties and "go out with"
people of the opposite sex. Gay and lesbian teenagers either pretend
to feelings they don't havewhich can lead to all kinds
of complications, or hide themselves away and don't have a social
life. Especially in rural shire counties it is unusual for them
to have access to a LGB social group where they can unwind in
congenial and safe surroundings.
13. To be under such pressure at a young
age when you yourself are learning to cope with unfamiliar and
perhaps unwelcome feelings is often intolerably difficult if you
have to cope alone.
14. Other agencies through surveys have
indicated that pupils who come out or are "outed" to
their parents all too frequently meet with a hostile or at best
confused and traumatised reaction. Some are verbally and physically
abused, told they are "unnatural" and that their sexuality
is unacceptable. There are those who find themselves out on the
street and homeless within the hour. EACH warmly welcomed a DfES
decision that teachers were no longer required to notify parents
that their child had "come out" to them if they had
reason to believe that that pupil's mental or physical well-being
might be put at risk by such a communication. Some times it is
wiser to wait until the young person is capable of living independently
before the disclosure is made.
15. EACH is strongly aware that teachers
and other school staff may also be isolated and under pressure
because they are gay or lesbian. Not all school staffrooms are
comfortable places to be "out", and many gay and lesbian
teachers fear that if identified they may lose standing, influence
or promotion opportunities. Pupils are not the only people in
schools to be the targets of homophobic bullying.
16. This carries the clear implication that
some staff in schools are themselves guilty of homophobic bullying.
EACH has received many reports from pupils of insulting remarks
made by teachers to individual pupils sometimes in front of their
whole class. "Straight" pupils take their cue from such
public abuseclearly homophobic attitudes are acceptable
in this school.
17. A games teacher lambasting his soccer
team at half time by saying "You played like a lot of poufs"
may well not realise that one of his players is gay, and finds
the comment really offensive. Yet he would not have dreamt of
using the word "nigger" in front of pupils. One cannot
help thinking that the deputy head who called out to a sixth-former
in a crowded lobby where a group were setting up a Christmas tree
"Adam, shouldn't you be on the top of the tree?" was
not so forgivably unaware.
18. A school which is creating an ethos
of inclusiveness will certainly be a school where members of staff
at the very least are comfortable with colleagues who are gay
or lesbian, and where, for example, there would be no problem
with a staff member bringing along a same sex partner to a staff
19. It should not be assumed that homophobic
bullying is purely a secondary school phenomenon. Young children
of primary school age readily pick up the verbal insults and "bad
words" that they hear older children using, and "gay"
is quite a common playground insult in many primary schools. EACH
does not believe that it is appropriate to engage children of
primary age in teaching about sexual actshowever, they
can perfectly well be led by teachers to understand that people
of the same sex sometimes have loving relationships. It is by
no means unknown these days for a child in school to have "two
mummies" or for a young child to be aware that an older brother
or sister is gay. Certainly primary school teachers should challenge
20. EACH believes that homophobic bullying
will be most successfully challenged where there is leadership
from the very top. This starts with central Government. The repeal
of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 has been a highly
important step. Far too many headteachers and teachers have hidden
cravenly behind what were supposed to be the provisions of this
legislation, which in fact never prevented teaching about homosexuality,
let alone preventing teachers punishing homophobic bullying.
21. Though we are emphatically not a campaigning
organisation, EACH believes that a new section in the Education
Bill currently going through Parliament imposing a specific duty
on governors and headteachers to safeguard the well-being of gay
and lesbian pupils would send an important and welcome signal
to all schools.
22. The Department for Education and Skills
has made some welcome forward steps, especially with the publication
of the document Stand Up For Uschallenging homophobia
in schools (2004) to which EACH contributed, and which EACH would
warmly commend to the Committee's attention. It contains both
valuable statistical evidence and a range of strategies that can
be used in schools. EACH is currently participating in developing
new guidance to schools around these issues.
23. However, we feel strongly that no document,
however well conceived, is a substitute for face-to-face in-service
training where problems and ideas can be exchanged and developed.
No two schools are quite the same, and the particular mix of people
in a school staff room or management team will need to confront
their own situation in their own way. Schools with a specific
religious ethos, for example, will have special training needs.
24. Although EACH is a registered charity,
we are very limited in the training work we can provide free to
schools and colleges. It is normal for us to charge fees and travelling
expenses. Since this funding has to come from schools' in-service
training budgets, it can easily be seen that homophobic bullying
is not likely to be prioritised as a topic for in-service training
by those headteachers who are in denial about the problem or are
themselves homophobic. They head the schools that are likely to
be most in need of such training.
25. Accordingly, it would be a great step
forward if the DfES would either host themselves (or provide ring-fenced
funding to LEAs to host) in-service training days around homophobic
bullying and relationships education. If this training could be
provided (ideally for PSHE coordinators in each school) free at
the point of use, take up would undoubtedly be greatly increased.
EACH has suggested that the DfES pilot such training in two specimen
LEAs (perhaps one inner city and one rural shire county) but so
far there have been no initiatives in this area.
26. The requirement for Ofsted [their framework
from September 2005] to report how a school is promoting five
outcomes including pupils "being physically and mentally
healthy", "staying safe, and being protected from harm
and neglect", provides a ready made opportunity for inspectors
to evaluate how schools are confronting homophobic bullying. If
schools are aware of Ofsted's interest in this area, that will
be an important lever to improvement.
27. A local education authority can give
an important lead to its schools by promoting authority-wide in-service
trainingperhaps by gathering together all the PSHE co-ordinators
for their secondary schools. The LEA is sending a valuable signal
that it attaches importance to this issue, expects them to address
it, and is prepared to help them to do so.
28. Similarly, at the level of the individual
school, leadership must come from the top. The headteacher needs
to get the majority of the governing body on board for addressing
homophobic bullying. This can be challenging, but if this issue
is presented as a matter of pupil safety, it will in the end be
a brave governor who will actually defends bullying.
29. The headteacher then needs to convince
and enthuse the senior management team of the importance of the
issueagain not from a "bleeding heart liberal"
or "politically correct" perspectivebut as an
issue of improving pupil achievement and ensuring that all pupils
are safe at school.
30. EACH would strongly recommend that school
behaviour policies are developed by the whole staff working together
with the whole pupil bodyperhaps in tutor groups in PSHE
sessions. Schools are required to have anti-bullying policies.
Alarmingly few however make specific mention of homophobic bullying
as such or statements of inclusivity that make it explicit that
gay and lesbian people are welcome and valued at the school. Pupils
can be actively involved in discussions which lead to whole school
behaviour policies being agreedpolicies for which the pupils
feel some genuine ownership.
31. It is a huge step forward when every
pupil is aware of where their school stands on the issue of homophobic
bullying and that gay and lesbian people are not going to be disparaged
any more than people from ethnic minorities. In disputes whether
public or private, such agreed statements provide a vital point
32. Good practice will vary from situation
to situation, but EACH was impressed to be told of a system developed
in some German schools and tried here where the pupils themselves
elect "Teachers of Trust". In Germany these teachers
are then legally empowered to act as counsellors and listen to
pupils maintaining complete confidentiality if in their judgement
this is appropriate.
33. This system (or something like it) in
every school would be a great benefit to those pupils who feel
so isolated because they are being picked on as gay or lesbian
and very badly need to talk to a responsible adult. However, it
is simply a fact of life that all too often a pupil under this
kind of stress will turn to a particular staff member they happen
to see as sympathetic and friendly.
34. For this reason, EACH believes strongly
that every staff member should have some training in how to handle
a situation where a pupil "comes out" to them. It is
a very challenging situation for a teacher who has perhaps little
personal knowledge of gay people or their needs and concerns.
To respond inappropriately could be disastrous.
35. We would also welcome the use of pupil
mentors and "bully buddies" (strangely, sometimes the
bullies themselves can be recruited and "turned round"
with appropriate training). Obviously there is a need here for
effective staff support and oversight.
36. Lessons about "homosexuality"
are, in our view, to be avoidedthough, as has been said
above, sessions where school rules or behaviour policy are being
debated can be useful opportunities to ventilate both attitudes
37. Rather, we would recommend that in much
the same way that the achievements and history of black people
have been increasingly drawn into the curriculum, it should become
ordinary and uncontroversial for teachers to mention in lessons
that (for example) distinguished writers, musicians, actors, statesmen,
sporting and film stars, war heroes have been or are gay or lesbian,
or to mention where relevant but without comment their same sex
partners. Gay young people have told EACH that this can be remarkably
reassuring and important for their self-esteemlike all
young people they need role models.
38. There are hazards in this area in school
life which need to be addressed pro-actively by senior management.
Where contract buses are used (common in rural areas) to get pupils
to and from school, arrangements should be made for them to be
supervisedperhaps by senior pupils. Bullying can often
take place on school buses, and victims may not have any viable
travel alternative. School discos can be a flashpoint for homophobiawill
the school permit boys who have become partners to behave in the
same way they allow boy-girl couples? The very genuine discomfort
"straight" boys feel when undressing or showering along
with a known gay pupil does need to be taken into accountand
perhaps some schools need to be a little more considerate of the
need for personal privacy in this area for all their pupils.
39. We would not wish to prescribe solutions
for these or other situationswhat we do recommend is that
school managements give them active consideration and do not just
allow matters to drift. Pupils deserve better.
40. Unsurprisingly, improving the situation
in the schools of England and Wales about homophobia is down to
good school leadership which promotes working with all those involved
in the school community to get them to accept that all pupils
should be included and treated with respect. Schools need leadership
that agrees and sets firm rules on this and sticks by them.
41. No-one would pretend that we have won
the battle with racism in school. However it is normal now in
the vast majority of schools for every pupil to understand that
racism is regarded by the school as unacceptable. The need is
urgently to work towards a situation where it is clear to all
pupils that homophobia and homophobic bullying of all kinds are
regarded as equally unacceptable.