ONE in five teenagers believes that their school is not a safe place for gay pupils, new research has revealed. And too often, they say, teachers are to blame for failing to confront homophobic bullying.
Last week, the Government proposed new legislation to outlaw anti-gay discrimination by employers. But campaigners say that the survey of 1,177 sixth-formers, carried out by academics at Loughborough University, adds weight to calls for much tougher laws to force schools to clamp down on homophobic bullying.
Forty-three per cent of the 16 and 17-year-olds polled, the overwhelming majority of whom were heterosexual, said their school was either not a safe place for gay pupils, or only sometimes safe. By contrast, only 6 per cent thought their school was unsafe for pupils from ethnic minorities.
Parallel interviews with 15 gay young people offered anecdotal evidence that schools were not tackling the problem. Terry, 16, is quoted as saying:
"Everyone would just stand up in class going 'oh yeah, it's the poof'. And my teachers never really mentioned itI I thought they would be there for me."
Two of the interviewees had attempted suicide. All but two said they had failed to fulfil their academic potential, largely because of bullying.
Dr Tracey Skelton, co-author of the report, said: "I don't think schools are dealing with this very effectively at all." Some teachers were afraid of being called gay by pupils if they confronted the bullies, she said.
The research was presented at a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' conference at which several teachers said the word "gay" ranked alongside words like "naff" as a generic term of abuse among pupils.
Sue Sanders, co-chair of Schools Out, the support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual teachers, said that heads and governors were often reluctant to tackle homophobic bullying. This failure is partly ascribed to the fear of contravening Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which forbids the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities. The Race Relations Amendment Act, introduced this year, requires schools to promote racial harmony among pupils and staff. But there is no such law relating to sexual diversity.
Although all schools must now have an anti-bullying policy, there is no requirement to set out specifically how homophobic abuse should be tackled. A 1997 survey revealed that although 99 per cent of schools had an anti-bullying policy, only 6 per cent had one relating to homophobia.