28th May 2004 at 01:00
Did you know?

* Section 28, which banned local authorities from 'promoting' homosexual family relationships, was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales last year

* Perceived homosexuality is the second most likely trigger for bullying (after weight)

* Suicide and self-harm rates among gay and lesbian adolescents are two to three times higher than for their heterosexual peers

* About 90 per cent of respondents to a gay rights group survey had been called names and nearly 50 per cent had been violently attacked when they were young. Half the attacks happened at school

* New employment equality regulations outlaw any discrimination or harassment in the workplace on the grounds of perceived or actual sexual orientation

* But a loophole might allow faith schools to claim that heterosexuality is a 'genuine occupational requirement', allowing them to sack teachers on the grounds of sexual orientation

It's difficult to say how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual teachers there are, but it has been estimated by some groups that the figure is about 50,000, while around one in 10 pupils may be homosexual.

Yet although 80 per cent of schools say they are aware of incidents of homophobic bullying, only 6 per cent have a policy to deal with it. Which means a significant proportion of the school community is faced with a hostile, even violent environment - and little protection. So what should schools be doing? New laws banning homophobic discrimination in the workplace give gay teachers some safeguards, but does this make a difference if you're faced with a class of bigots? And with almost all gay young people suffering verbal abuse, how can schools make sure homophobic language doesn't go unchallenged?

Hasn't Section 28 been repealed?

Yes. Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1998) was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales in November last year. It banned local authorities from promoting "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Although it had never applied directly to individual schools, many teachers were confused about what the Act allowed, and felt unable to deal confidently with homophobic bullying. And many remain unaware that the law has changed. "Section 28 had a horrible, corrosive effect," says Jenny Broughton, national co-ordinator for Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gay Men (Fflag). "And it went out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Many schools are blithely unaware that anything has changed, or choose to ignore that it has."

Now a new law promises to give gay staff protection against discrimination.

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulation, in force since December last year, outlaws any discrimination or harassment in the workplace on the grounds of perceived or actual sexual orientation; and harassment includes creating a hostile environment or making it difficult for a gay person to come out. "It has profound implications for homophobia," says Sue Sanders of Schools Out! "Gay people now have rights, for the first time. So we can start to break down the ambiguity and prejudice around homosexuality."

Does homophobia affect my school?

Every large secondary is likely to have a significant number of homosexual staff and pupils. In a national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles between 1999 and 2001, just over 8 per cent of the 11,000 people questioned had experienced some kind of sexual activity with someone of the same gender. Among school-age young people, more than 1 per cent of boys and 5 per cent of girls had experienced some form of homosexual activity, and more reported homosexual attraction. The stigma attached to admitting homosexuality means these figures are likely to be conservative.

Young people are more likely than adults to be the victims of extreme homophobia. In research carried out in 1996 by the gay rights group Stonewall, 90 per cent of respondents had been verbally assaulted and almost 50 per cent physically attacked while they were young, with half of attacks happening at school, perpetrated by fellow students. Andrew Mulholland, who chairs the Homophobic Bullying Forum in Bolton and delivers Living It, a training resource for schools (see resources), says the figures illustrate ingrained prejudice in schools. "We find overt homophobia," he admits. "We can't change these views, but we try to make sure they're not actively exhibited."

Faith schools

Homosexuality can be a particularly tricky issue for faith schools. "They usually demonstrate the strongest resistance to tackling homophobia," says Simon Forrest of the Open University, who researches sexual behaviour and is co-author of Talking About Homosexuality in the Secondary School (see resources). "They often take a tough line on sexuality in general."

Exploring sexuality can be difficult for gay young people from strong religious backgrounds, particularly if it means a break with family and friends. Experts say that, without school support, young people risk isolation, depression and self-harm.

Gay teachers who work in denominational schools may soon be forced to hide their sexuality, or risk losing their jobs. A loophole in the Employment Equality regulations might allow faith schools to claim that heterosexuality is a "genuine occupational requirement", allowing them to sack teachers on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although the Government has issued assurances that this won't happen, many people want to clear up any confusion. The teaching unions, with others in the Trades Union Congress, have launched a joint action to force a judicial review of the legislation, which they claim violates European law and the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Sticks and stones

Homophobic bullying, like other kinds of bullying, can take many forms, from stares in the corridor to the vandalising of personal property and physical attack. But homophobia has one extra weapon: ingrained language habits. Ofsted highlights derogatory use of homophobic language in its reports, but "gay" is still routinely used as an insult. Studies have shown that perceived homosexuality is the second most likely trigger for bullying (after weight), and that the rate of suicide and self-harm among gay and lesbian adolescents is two to three times higher than for their heterosexual peers. Homosexual young people have to face everything from ignorance to open hostility and, unsurprisingly, often become long-term truants.

For gay staff, homophobic bullying can make an already demanding job impossible. Most gay teachers don't come out in schools, and for good reason. "It's not those I teach who give me problems," says a gay teacher from Wales. "It's those I don't teach. I've had a poster campaign against me in the school corridors, emails accusing me of paedophilia, abuse in the streets, parents refusing to talk to me. A week doesn't go by without vicious verbal abuse, although I've never been physically attacked. Yet."

Teaching unions report growing numbers of members asking for advice and support. "People often underestimate how much of a problem homophobia is," says Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "Being a good teacher has nothing to do with sexuality, but we still find homophobia contributing to issues of recruitment and retention."

Different needs

Homophobia throws up all sorts of anomalies. In particular, attitudes towards gay men and lesbians can vary. "Lesbianism is often presented as more sassy and sexy, and very unthreatening," says Simon Forrest, "whereas gay men are stuck with an image that is either comically effete or rapaciously sexual." Close friendships between girls of school age are encouraged, and displays of affection are an acceptable part of young female bonding. Boys face much more pressure to be physically discreet.

But when it comes to teaching, it's often lesbians who get a hard time.

"The stereotypical gay man is sweet, sensitive and caring - great qualities in a teacher,"says Sue Sanders. "But the stereotypical lesbian remains difficult, man-hating and butch: the last person anyone wants teaching their children."

The problem can also vary depending on where you live. Many urban centres have thriving and highly visible gay communities where information and social networks are well established. Facilities are poorer in rural areas, and there's the spectre of village gossip. "In small communities without much social mobility, local habits of thought and speech can go unchallenged for decades," says Dr Michael Halls, director of the InterCom Trust, which runs projects for young lesbians and gays across the rural south-west. "It's not so much prejudice as abject ignorance. This can be chilling for someone in a small village." Dr Halls says rural schools face particular problems in challenging issues such as homophobic language.

"Parents, for example, often can't protest without it being assumed that they are gay themselves, or their children are gay. Because everyone in the community knows everyone else, they dare not speak out."

Why are schools so slow to change?

Recent surveys about social attitudes have shown increasingly liberal views about homosexuality, particularly among under-50s. But this is rarely reflected in schools. "Despite broad social change, a large proportion of schools are a long way back when it comes to tackling homophobia," says Simon Forrest. His research has shown that failure to act is usually a combination of lack of awareness and an absence of staff willing to take on the job. "It often takes an extraordinary event, such as someone coming out, to bring the issues into the open."

Some pressure groups hold up the police as a model for schools to emulate if they're serious about change. "Last year's Pride parade was led by police officers in uniform with the blessing of their forces. Why can't this be schools?" asks Sue Sanders. "The police grasped the nettle. They realised homophobia was not so different from racism, for example, and that attitudes needed challenging. But education as a whole still has no sense of how to monitor the problem or how to deal with the issues."

So what can be done?

Most specialists advise that tackling homophobia as part of a holistic approach to improving the school environment - which might also include raising issues about race, gender or religion - is better than highlighting it as a stand-alone problem. "It can be enormously productive to have someone come into school with a new perspective," says Simon Forrest.

"Perhaps a gay man, or an HIV-positive gay man. But unless it's embedded in a context, it just becomes a freak show."

At Turton high school in Bolton, head of design and technology Christine Birchby has been leading an anti-homophobia initiative for the past three years. She recommends involving the local Healthy Schools co-ordinator and tackling everything from management issues to partnerships with parents.

She also suggests taking time to collect evidence. "We began with a series of questionnaires to parents, staff and pupils that highlighted, for instance, use of homophobic language. It proved there was something to be tackled."

Nor is it just secondary schools that need to be taking action. "Primary schools need to be more proactive in teaching citizenship, decency and tolerance," says Michael Halls. "Primary teachers may claim tackling homophobia is beyond their remit, but everyone has an obligation to challenge prejudice."

And in the staffroom?

Christine Birchby says individual teachers can be very frightened. "They don't feel qualified to deal with this." She says her experience at Turton highlights the need for special training for staff before working with pupils.

One way of boosting confidence may be to take sessions in teams. Adrienne Hannah, training and development manager for FPA (the Family Planning Association) Scotland and co-author of its Challenging Homophobia training pack (see resources), always recommends teachers avoid taking a class on their own. Because raising issues about homosexuality can incite powerful reactions, it's important that it's not left to a few teachers while the rest of the staffroom looks the other way. Nor should it be assumed that gay staff will be in the front line. Many feel resentful of being used as a lever to get difficult issues out in the open. Calling in support from a specialist organisation may be a good introduction, but experts stress that, in the end, it's the school that has to take responsibility for a coherent, integrated approach.

It may not just be pupils' attitudes that need addressing. Staff at fpa Scotland working on sexual health issues with young people were "surprised" at the number of times pupils raised concerns about the level of homophobia from teachers. And few gay teachers feel comfortable about coming out to their colleagues - or their bosses. "We recently did a nationwide survey of members, which identified homophobic bullying as a significant part of management bullying," says Chris Keates.

What's being done to help?

Partnership projects involving voluntary organisations, charities, unions and the police are gradually raising awareness and offering strategies for tackling homophobia. Some of these projects are aimed directly at schools.

Several resource packs aim to create a basic structure for action, and many of the specialist organisations work in schools or train teachers. "It's a case of chipping away at ingrained attitudes," says Adrienne Hannah.

Education for All, an initiative launched recently, should take this piecemeal work a stage further. Developed byStonewall and Fflag, and representing a broad coalition of national and devolved government, universities, unions and all the major charities working with gay young people, the project will campaign to air the issues around homophobia. It will also create an action plan for long-term improvement in the resources available to help them.

Meanwhile, unions continue to offer help to gay and lesbian teachers. As well as publishing advice documents, they run conferences and seminars that address issues raised by members. "We've found people value a forum, an outlet to talk," says Chris Keates. "Most people know what the problem is; they want to know what they can do about it. We aim to offer practical solutions."

A long way to go

Experts and pressure groups still feel more could be done with a firmer lead from government. "There's a lack of positive guidance. The Government needs to flesh out some of the statements it makes," says Simon Forrest.

"It's still up to voluntary organisations to fill the gap."

Homophobic bullying is often only implicit in generic bullying policies, and there's no single central body with responsibility for gay and lesbian issues, as there is for race, for example. And in a wider context, UK law is full of anomalies: a hotel manager is not allowed to discriminate among staff on grounds of sexuality, but can turn gay couples away from the door.

Meanwhile, there's frustration that many schools deal with prejudice around race, religion or gender, but ignore homophobia. "We must be positive," says Jenny Broughton. "Most schools want to realise the potential of all their staff and students; they'd be mad not to. We just need to make it clear that tackling homophobia is a big step towards this."

Main text: Steven Hastings

Pictures: Alamy, Corbis

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: Inspection

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today