A Resources special: Equality - Still out of sight and out of mind

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Schools must tackle homophobic bullying as forcefully as they do other forms of discrimination, says Elizabeth Bridges*

For anyone who works in a school, bullying is an unfortunate reality. From comments about weight to remarks about ethnicity or disability, pupils - and some teachers - can be cruel and thoughtless.

Most teachers usually tackle this type of bullying and ignorance head-on, with the knowledge that they will be supported by the majority of pupils, parents and teachers. Yet research by lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity Stonewall shows that only 51 per cent of schools have the same stance on homophobic bullying. As a female teacher who is also gay, I find this staggering. If we do not tackle homophobia we are, by law, failing as teachers in relation to both child protection and safeguarding.

As far as I am aware, I am the only gay teacher at my school, but that is almost impossible to ascertain because I am not "out" and other teachers may be in a similar situation. My reasons for not being openly gay include fear of a lack of support from colleagues and lack of confidence in how to deal with pupils. If one in 10 people is gay, a significant number of staff and pupils across the country must feel similarly unsupported.

When working on this article, I spent some time considering how best to research the level of homophobia in my school. Then I realised that the fact I felt the need to write this article under a pseudonym was evidence in itself.

As teachers, most of us witness homophobic language on a daily basis, flying around the school as effortlessly as a well-made paper aeroplane. Who would have thought that I had "gay" tables, "gay" lessons and "gay" wall displays in my classroom? This may seem a trivial issue to some but language is important.

A boy at our school was recently assaulted when he came out as gay. Would the verbal and physical abuse directed at him be as invisible and so easily swept under the carpet if it were aimed at an ethnic minority or disabled pupil? I often ask my pupils whether they would say, "That coat is so Asian." They look horrified and protest that they would never say such a thing, yet they are bemused when I ask them to explain the difference between that and calling a coat "gay".

The issue of same-sex relationships seems to be outside the comfort zones of many teachers, and is therefore not tackled with as much rigour as other types of bullying. The issue is generally absent from most school curricula. There is less racism in schools today because we are improving education about different races and religions, encouraging children to learn about them and celebrate their difference. But homosexuality is largely ignored.

Most schools see same-sex relationships as a pastoral issue but I would argue that it should be an educational issue. To educate is to reduce ignorance and increase kindness to all groups in society. Homophobia and homosexuality are two different concepts; we need to educate individuals about the latter to reduce the incidence of the former. As teachers, we should do our best to incorporate the celebration of all members of society into the curriculum. It is only then that pupils will realise that homosexuality affects many of their peers.

Luckily, the law is now on our side. Section 28, which prevented the teaching of homosexuality in schools as acceptable because it was a "pretended family relationship", was repealed in 2003. The Equality Act 2010 now informs every school's individual code - it states that schools "cannot unlawfully discriminate against pupils because of their sex, race, disability, religion or belief or sexual orientation". And Ofsted will no longer give a "good" or higher rating to any school that does not effectively tackle bullying, including homophobic bullying and language. So teachers are now legally responsible for challenging homophobic bullying.

This does not mean teaching pupils about sex. It is not even about teaching tolerance. It means teaching kindness. The majority of us would not tell pupils that we need to be "tolerant" of the black or Asian community, or of disabled people, so we should not be using this language in addressing the issues of gay people. Instead, we should celebrate the achievements and contribution of gay individuals just as we do those of other "minority" groups. Only then will we be able to break down the unfounded prejudices held by many pupils and teachers.

It will take time to change the attitudes endemic in many British schools. Variables such as location and pupil cohort will affect how easily we can achieve equality and understanding. But there are many ways in which we can make our schools safer and more inclusive places for gay pupils and staff.

* Elizabeth Bridges is a pseudonym. The author teaches humanities at a secondary school in East Anglia

What should schools do?

Policies: know your facts

Update equal opportunities and sex and relationships policies to include all protected strands from the Equality Act 2010, including age, disability, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

Inform staff of government and school policies, the Equality Act 2010, Ofsted criteria, and safeguarding and inclusion policies.

Training: give your staff confidence

Train all staff with relevant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Inset. All faculties, departments, governors and support staff should receive LGBT training.

Curriculum: if we are not teaching it then it doesn't exist

Implement and embed an inclusive LGBT curriculum with your youngest year group and continue with each subsequent year group.

Use LGBT History Month each February as a vehicle to educate everyone in your school about the achievements of LGBT people.

Environment: what does your display say about your school?

Place inclusive displays in key areas around the school - for example, the reception, corridors, theatre and hall.

Display posters from LGBT and children's organisations such as Schools OUT, Barnardo's and Stonewall.

Make sure that the school code is highly visible and reflects school and government policies.

Anti-bullying campaign: monitor to inform action

Enforce a rigorous anti-bullying campaign, monitoring the nature of each incident, collecting data and setting sanctions according to school behaviour policy.

Enforce a whole-school ban on homophobic and transphobic language, setting sanctions for the use of the word "gay" in an inappropriate context.

Source: Elly Barnes, www.ellybarnes.com


Key stage 1: The words we use

This insightful lesson from Stonewall Equality shows children how the words they use can affect others.


Key stage 2: Relationships

Help pupils to consider different points of view and their own attitudes towards same-sex relationships with a PowerPoint shared by DJ_Skoolio.


Key stage 3: Sexual orientation

Explore questions of identity, sexual attraction and what it means to be gay or straight with lesson ideas from SexEdUKation.


Key stage 4: Homophobia

A Teachers TV video on how to challenge homophobia at school includes interviews with teachers and pupils who have been victims of homophobic bullying.


Key stage 5: Rights

Encourage pupils to discuss homosexuality and gay, lesbian and bisexual rights, including issues such as same-sex parenting and adoption, using a resource from The Classroom.


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