It is endemic in British schools. Four out of five secondary teachers are aware of it yet only six per cent of schools have formally tackled the problem.
It results in low achievement, truancy, physical or psychosomatic illness, alienation, acute misery and downright fear. It would be an issue at the top of every school's agenda were it not for one thing. It's to do with homosexuality.
Many schools have implemented anti-bullying programmes. That is the good news. The bad news is that many of these programmes do not recognise the extent and pain caused by homosexual bullying - bullying which ranges from verbal abuse and ridicule to physical attacks, the spreading of rumours, isolation or even "gang" sexual abuse. What is more, victims frequently report that teachers are reluctant to listen or even laugh along with the abuse. It is to combat this situation that, earlier this year, the campaigning organisation Stonewall initiated its Education for All programme.
Already it has issued a four-page "Cornerstone" briefing document under the title Education for All which outlines the problem and indicates strategies which can lead to a more inclusive culture. The latter includes not only the need to acknowledge the problem and to develop staff training in this area but also to provide information and the encouragement of role models.
For example, how many schools have an openly gay governor?
For several years, schools sheltered behind the notorious Section 28 legislation which they (wrongly) believed forbade the "promotion" of homosexuality. That law was repealed two years ago. But many teachers (both straight and gay) still find it a difficult subject to broach in the classroom and are frightened of tackling it in one-to-one situations. Both they and head teachers will find support from the Education for All programme which swings into full gear this term.
Already Stonewall's dedicated website (launched last term) is receiving over 2,000 hits per month and this term sees the launch of a teaching pack which includes curriculum-linked lesson plans and a wealth of background information. Some schools will also be able to take advantage of a theatre-in-education production Burning which tours schools in London, Manchester and Wales during October, and Kent and East Anglia the following month.
While those schools that do already tackle the so-called "problem" of homosexuality often regard it as something for older pupils, this play and workshop is aimed at KS3 and raises issues about identity, diversity and homophobia. Also available alongside the tour is an in-service workshop for all school staff which looks at strategies to tackle playground homophobia and the pervasive use of insults such as "bent", "dyke" and "poof".
In the last year or so, even the Conservative Party and some of the tabloids have shown a new sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues. Now the challenge is for schools to address the matter. It is, after all, not something that affects only a minority. You don't have to be gay to be the victim of homosexual bullying.
l Stonewall's dedicated site www.stonewall.org.ukeducation_for_all The Cornerstone document is in pdf format at http:www.stonewall.org.ukeducation_for_allresourceseducation_profession alsbest_practice_gu.html?CFID=2365791CFTOKEN=87514009
* For information on "Burning", contact Spare Tyre Theatre Tel: 020 7419 7007 Email: BURNING@sparetyretheatrecompany.co.uk