"Are you out in school?"
"I beg your pardon?" I said into the telephone.
"Are you out in school?" the journalist repeated.
"I don't understand. I am in my office."
My phone interview with a national newspaper was a salient reminder that, for too many people, it is illogical for a school leader to be working to crush homophobic bullying unless they are gay themselves.
Four years ago, picking through The School Report, a research paper by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall, I was appalled at the landscape of mistreatment that gay students, or students perceived as gay, have to negotiate. As deputy head of a Christian, voluntary-aided (VA) comprehensive, the evidence that such students have a particularly poor deal in faith schools was especially disturbing: worse attendance, worse exam outcomes, poorer onward progression.
How could a student victimised over sexuality get help? Few students like making a disclosure of being bullied, but with homophobic bullying they may also feel scared of having to discuss feelings about their own sexuality that could be conflicted or uncomfortable. It's a double lose.
The illiberal view of homosexuality in some churches would incline many to suspect that a Christian faith school like mine would be institutionally homophobic at worst, or dodge taking a position at best. At St George's School we reject any such assumption. Christian schools are founded on a moral code based around not judging others and looking after each other, valuing everyone as a unique creation of God. In our view, a school led with Christian integrity should excel in protecting people whose sexuality or perceived sexuality might leave them open to bullying. Four years down the road, we feel we have made worthwhile progress.
It takes so little. While our school has benefited from high-profile visits by actor and campaigner Sir Ian McKellen and a gay serving member of the armed forces, the most powerful effect has been achieved by simply getting all staff to commit to challenging any homophobic comment, however intended, every time, everywhere. And to do so more publicly than they might normally discipline a child, to show everyone that our staff will not stand idly by and condone it.
Many staff were struck by the evidence in another Stonewall research paper, The Teachers' Report, published in 2009, that while almost all school staff think they challenge homophobic comments, almost all gay students surveyed feel they hardly ever do. Staff have been liberated by the direction that they can leave RE and PSHE teachers and senior staff to deal with any tricky angles regarding homosexuality: they can instead repeat the mantra that no faith endorses bullying on the basis of sexuality.
Only a tiny number of students have got to the point of facing sanctions for homophobic bullying. For most, a quiet word has been enough, given a relentless school-wide stricture that "We don't treat people like that here". One particularly powerful tool was an assembly based on councilman Joel Burns' passionate speech, available on YouTube, in which, prompted by a series of student suicides in the US, he tearfully disclosed the terrors of his own experience as a gay student. Few were left unmoved.
An atmosphere of tolerance
It has been great to hear that a number of students have been given the confidence to be "out" in school, knowing that all adults there will look after them in that choice; even better to hear that their peers have seen this as entirely unremarkable and dull. After initial Inset on the issue, a number of staff wrote to me saying how great it was that we were challenging homophobia: all had a relative or friend whose school life had been blighted. In my experience, such positive feedback is unique. The head has been delighted that adverse comments from parents have been almost non-existent.
Getting the pitch right can be very hard. Some students were under the impression that they could not use the word "gay" at all; others thought the Stonewall slogan "Some people are gay. Get over it!" was directed at gay people themselves. I have also had to rethink some of our communications. It may be appropriate for staff to challenge students with "You might do that at home, but you don't do it here", but such a line on homophobia can legitimise the expression of prehistoric attitudes and even hate crime in the wider community.
Finally, we know we need to be alert to opportunities for exploring issues of sexuality in the curriculum in a helpful way. While some would not agree, St George's has declined to take part in events such as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) History Week because we hold the view that they can be tokenistic and distorting. We prefer instead to use opportunities like a recent Year 11 history trip to Berlin to discuss issues such as sexual intolerance in the Nazi state.
Immense challenges remain for our school, as for all schools. We recruit children from around 40 feeder primaries. New pupils and staff need to be taught our expectations from scratch if they come from schools where tackling homophobia is less overt. We now know we need to move to challenge deeper attitudes, even where this may bring us into collision with the views of some of the faith congregations we serve. These challenges are vexing; but no one can fairly say that this particular faith school is not trying. And you don't have to be gay yourself to get on the bus.
Paddy Storrie is deputy head of St George's VA School in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.