A better place for gay pupils is better for all
Sadly, homophobic bullying blights the educational experience of more than half of all lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils. Events such as Anti-Bullying Week, drawing to a close today, can serve a useful purpose, promoting worthy causes on a school-wide basis. But this year's theme, "We're better without bullying", speaks a wider truth about the impact of homophobic bullying on pupil attendance and attainment that should mean every headteacher takes the issue even more seriously.
Research conducted by the University of Cambridge - published in The School Report sent to every secondary school in Britain by lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity Stonewall - reveals the impact that homophobic bullying is having on school performance in key areas. The research reveals that 55 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils experience homophobic bullying, which manifests itself in name-calling, cyber-bullying and physical abuse. Of these, three in five said the bullying impacted on their school work. One in six said such bullying had a big effect on their school work, describing the impact on class notes and coursework, and resulted in fear of attending certain lessons.
For schools focused on improving attendance rates, rates of truancy among gay pupils should be of major concern. It is perhaps unsurprising that 44 per cent of gay pupils skip school as a result of bullying, as pupils try to remove themselves from the situation. But more surprising is that seven in 10 lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils overall have played truant. This could be explained by the finding that more than half of all gay young people feel they "don't belong" at their school.
This isn't just a problem affecting the opportunities and achievements of lesbian, gay or bisexual pupils. Although the Cambridge study focused exclusively on those pupils, teachers polled by YouGov in 2009 said homophobic bullying also affected boys who were academic or not keen on sport and girls who didn't conform to gender stereotypes because they exhibited "tomboy"-like behaviour.
Tackling homophobic bullying in a systematic and integrated way throughout the primary and secondary curriculum not only improves the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people but also helps to prepare all pupils for life in 21st-century Britain. And it improves results throughout the system.
So many intractable social problems waste young people's potential and impact on school performance. Unlike many of those, homophobic bullying can easily be solved, though it will require more than the flash in the pan provided by Anti-Bullying Week. If headteachers are looking for simple but effective ways to improve attendance and attainment, they should make tackling homophobic bullying a whole-school priority throughout the year. People perform better when they can be themselves. With good leadership and simple steps taken by staff, all schools can be better without homophobic bullying.
Some schools have encountered opposition from parents who object to any discussion of sexual orientation unless it involves fire, brimstone and damnation, but these parents are in an increasingly small minority. Public attitudes polling by YouGov earlier this year found that 93 per cent of parents believed that schools should tackle homophobic bullying. And, contrary to the myth that religious parents are an obstacle to this work, 92 per cent of people of faith agree. Some of the best practice in this area can be found in faith schools.
'I feel welcome'
While high-profile initiatives such as Anti-Bullying Week can provide a great focal point for activity to combat homophobic bullying, this is no substitute for simple steps throughout the year. The University of Cambridge's research found that homophobic bullying is lower in schools that explicitly say such behaviour is wrong, and gay pupils in these schools are twice as likely to feel that their school is "an accepting, tolerant place where I feel welcome". Responding quickly to incidents when they occur is even more effective at reducing bullying and making gay pupils feel more welcome.
During the past five years Stonewall has engaged with more than 10,000 schools, directly or through local authorities, to help them develop strategies to reduce homophobic bullying, with some considerable success. During that period, levels of homophobic bullying in schools across Britain have fallen from 65 to 55 per cent. Most importantly, we have developed a strong evidence base showing what works and what doesn't.
This work shouldn't be confined to secondary schools. In response to concern from primary school teachers about homophobic bullying and a lack of training and support in this area, Stonewall has been working with primaries in a programme of activities centred on the concept of "different families". This work has not only introduced pupils to the concept of same-sex parenting (an increasingly common reality in Britain) in an age-appropriate way but has also given pupils the confidence to discuss a whole range of different families, from single parents to foster carers and adoptive parents.
Leading schools have gone further by teaching positively about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. From discussing the works of Oscar Wilde in English literature to displaying "Some people are gay. Get over it!" posters in modern language classrooms in seven different languages, schools are finding all kinds of creative ways to incorporate gay people and their lives into everyday parts of the curriculum. If pupils are engaged, they are more likely to perform better.
And that, surely, is good news for all teachers, schools and the country at large.
Wes Streeting is head of education at Stonewall. For more information about Stonewall's work with schools, email email@example.com.