Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

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 lesbian—they 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 in school.

  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 is "uncool".

  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 50-70 pupils.

  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 sexuality—boys 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 up.

  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 hazardous—many a pupil has made themselves a target for the whole peer group by sharing this "secret".

  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 have—which 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 abuse—clearly 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 party.

  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 acts—however, 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 inappropriate language.

  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 Us—challenging 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 training—perhaps 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 issue—again not from a "bleeding heart liberal" or "politically correct" perspective—but 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 body—perhaps 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 agreed—policies 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 of reference.

  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 avoided—though, as has been said above, sessions where school rules or behaviour policy are being debated can be useful opportunities to ventilate both attitudes and information.

  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-esteem—like 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 supervised—perhaps 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 homophobia—will 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 account—and 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 situations—what 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.

May 2006

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