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Getting to the root of bullying

Schools must apply consistent, explicit and conscious policies if they are to stamp out homophobic behaviour, writes Tim Lucas.

Last year, a student at Sale Grammar School was awarded compensation of pound;1,500, following bullying relating to his sexuality. The court held that the governors had breached their duty of care. The implication is clear. Schools could face huge bills if they fail to prevent homophobic bullying.

Yet, while most schools have successfully changed their cultures to embed a consensus that racist behaviour is always tackled, the same is not always true of tackling homophobic behaviour.

Yet the definitions of institutional racism and racist incidents adopted by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry can easily be applied to institutional homophobia and homophobic incidents.

As chair of the National Union of Teachers' Working Party on Lesbian and Gay Equality, I was involved in a seminar on this issue. It led to a lively discussion which, I believe, could help teachers tackle such bullying with greater confidence in future.

First it is worth reminding ourselves of the Department for Education and Employment's latest guidance on the subject. This states that, "the emotional and mental distress caused by bullying - related to sexual orientation - can prejudice school achievement, lead to lateness or truancy and, in extreme cases, end with suicide."

Sadly, research conducted by the Devon-based organisation, Joint Action Against Homophobic Bullying, indicates that widespread bullying of this sort continues to exist, though not necessarily aimed at those who are gay.

As a term of abuse, "gay" often has little or no connection with sexual orientation. However, the overriding message is that it is something with which pupils do not want to be associated.

According to Debbie Epstein, of London University's Institute of Education, schools that are successful in dealing with homophobic bullying apply anti-bullying policies consistently, explicitly and consciously.

A further key factor to success, is the quality of relationships within a school, particularly the degree to which staff, at all levels, communicate with each other and hare the ownership of policy. The most effective schools devote considerable amounts of senior management time to talking to pupils, especially to those who have been involved in incidents.

The evidence is that homophobic bullying is linked to the perceived expectations of masculinity. Where boys transgress this unwritten code of masculinity, they often face such bullying. Many young men use "heterosexual laddishness" as a way of positioning themselves in a hierarchy.

A fear of violence is often more significant than actual levels of violence, and it leads boys to adopt macho behaviour that affects their own achievements. When boys are interviewed alone, they express a dislike of this conduct, but feel that they have little choice but to act within the norms expected of them. Yet, the irony is that it is bullies themselves who often question their own sexuality; something about which schools need to be sensitive.

The attitude of schools and educational institutions to staff who have "come out" is crucial. Sue Sanders, of the training group Chrysalis, says that it is the choice of teachers themselves to "come out"; while it is their own personal responsibility, they also have to judge whether it is safe to do so. Unless senior management in schools, however, support such teachers, it may be impossible.

Strong leadership from government, LEAs, school governing bodies and senior management is needed. The Office for Standards in Education has a role in evaluating whether or not such bullying takes place. Teachers should be provided with the time and professional development to tackle this issue. The Healthy School Award can be given to schools where bullying is being tackled successfully and, of course, Section 28 must be repealed.

However, I believe that the climate is changing. Schools are now beginning to place bullying at the top of their priorities. Schools have a fundamental interest in protecting pupils from violence and intimidation. For the sake of children's lives, it is time to give this issue a much higher profile.

Tim Lucas is chair of the NUT's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Equality in Education Working Party

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