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Bullies take cover behind Section 28

THOUSANDS of Scottish pupils face gay and lesbian taunting which some teachers say they are unable to challenge, the Anti-Bullying Network has warned.

The Government-funded helpline, based at Edinburgh University, hit back as the Scottish School Board Association, backed by high-powered businessmen, launched its controversial Keep the Clause campaign to persuade ministers to reconsider their decision to remove the Section 28 legislation that bans the promotion of homosexuality as an acceptable way of family life.

In a submission to the Scottish Executive, published on Wednesday, the association maintains the network, of which it claims to be a member, failed to identify homophobia "as a major cause of bullying in schools". There is "no quantifiable evidence" to back ministers' decision to scrap the 1980s clause, it insists.

But Andrew Mellor, the country's leading adviser on bullying, countered: "It is significant, even although it affects a minority of a minority. But each child affected is very seriously affected and in terms of numbers of kids in Scotland, you are into the thousands."

It is accepted that no evaluation has taken place but Mr Mellor is in no doubt about the impact of bullying. "We have had many, many calls from parents, teachers and others and in some of those calls homophobic bullying is a factor. Although it is a factor, it is difficult to say bullying is purely about homophobia," he said.

Mr Mellor, the network's manager, added: "Some teachers have been inhibited in dealing with homophobia in the classroom because of the existence of Section 28. There should be guidelines, support and advice to deal with the problem better than in the past."

The network is to launch its own guidelines next Friday, which Mr Mellor will detail in next week's TES Scotland. "Schools have a responsibility to do everything possible to tackle homophobic bullying with the same vigour as other forms of bullying," Mr Mellor said.

He believes teachers have long needed accurate information and contends that victims may seek redress in the courts if schools and councils fail to tackle the issue.

Mr Mellor suggests pupils should be made aware that they have aright to adopt any lifestyle that is within the law. Pupils should realise there is a responsibility not to harass others, whatever their sexual orientation.

The Educational Institute of Scotland meanwhile echoed concerns. Veronica Rankin, the union's equality officer, said some teachers were comfortable dealing with the issues under current constraints but others "feel quite vulnerable and worried about the consequences of giving advice".

The EIS wants clarification of guidelines. "In terms of fairness and social justice, the legislation is ill-informed," Ms Rankin said.

Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, reiterated the Executive's commitment to repeal the Tory legislation and introduce guidelines on sex education. "Teachers are always worried they cannot deal with these issues sensitively. We always said guidelines would be introduced because the law was being repealed," Mr Galbraith said.

He promised guidelines would be in place before the legislation is scrapped by the Ethical Standards in Public Life (Scotland) Bill to be introduced in the spring.

The Executive believes Section 28 in the 1986 Local Government Act has increased intolerance and prejudice and constrained sex education and anti-bullying initiatives. It is also being removed south of the border.

National advice does not directly specify homosexuality as a required topic of study but it does suggest how teachers might respond to questions and offers general advice about dealing with sensitive issues. "In practice, there is very little specific reference to homosexuality in school plans for health education and personal and social education," one Government adviser said.

The school board association continues to argue its campaign is not homophobic. "It is not about an anti-gay campaign. We are concerned about the protection of schoolchildren," Alan Smith, its national treasurer, said.

Ann Hill, the SSBA's chief executive, said it would "dangerous to remove the protective legislation" and backed fresh sex education guidelines as teachers lacked confidence in dealing with the issues. The Executive had failed to consult parents, she alleged.

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