How pink is your school?

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Inspectors are stepping up checks on school policies towards gay and lesbian pupils, a seminar at the educational psychologists' annual conference heard.

Under the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 and national advice on sex education, it was clear that inspectors were obliged to question schools on their approaches to the inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils, Liz McIntyre, a Dumfries and Galloway psychologist, said.

Mrs McIntyre conducted a survey in her own authority in which more than half (56 per cent) of primary and secondary headteachers reported no incidents of homophobic abuse in their school in the past year. One in three said there were one or two incidents. All said they dealt with homophobic bullying in the same way as other forms of bullying.

But one headteacher said the survey was "like asking questions about wife battering".

Mrs McIntyre believes that up to 10 per cent of pupils may be gay, lesbian or bisexual and at risk of homophobic bullying. "They are silent and invisible and do not feel schools are safe places to come out," she said.

Inspectors confirm they are now able to assess such issues under three headings: equality and fairness, climate and relationships, and pastoral care, which includes anti-bullying policies.

As Mrs McIntyre revealed her findings, Glasgow announced that it is encouraging teachers to be far more active in countering homophobic bullying and is bringing in specialists to offer advice.

A survey of 13 to 19-year-olds by LGBTYouth Scotland last June showed that three out of four lesbian, gay, bisexual or transexual young people had been bullied due to their sexuality. The abuse was mainly verbal, although some had been threatened with weapons or had received death threats.

One in three had truanted to escape homophobic bullying. A similar number reported incidents of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Only 7 per cent felt they received adequate support at school and reporting of homophobic bullying tended to be through youth groups rather than schools.

In a 2002 NHS survey in Glasgow, 86 per cent of the city's gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils stated that schools were not welcoming places for them. The city admits there are problems gathering data.

Officials caution that even if schools have better systems in place "young people may still be reluctant to report homophobic bullying and harassment as this places them in a position of having to 'come out' when they may not be ready to do so".

The Scottish Executive has commissioned a national survey into the extent of homophobic bullying, and Mrs McIntyre's study in Dumfries and Galloway highlights the difficulties teachers face in raising these issues.

"They are confused because it is such a sensitive area and causes a moral panic," she said. "They admit it is difficult because of the prejudice and because they do not have enough knowledge and training. They also tell you it's about the Scottish culture and are suspicious of education departments, parents and communities. They are not sure they will support them."

Teachers tended to take a liberal view but young people who experienced homophobic bullying wanted stronger action.

Mrs McIntyre, whose son came out at 18 and admitted to suffering at school, called on teachers to challenge the stigmatism of lesbian and gay families and condemn any form of homophobic bullying. Sex education lessons had to include gay, lesbian and bisexual dimensions.

Male primary teacher

"They (the pupils) used the term gay all the time, meaning rubbish, crap, awful. I try to deal with it but most times I ignore it. They have picked on one particular P7 boy who is gentle and call him a 'poof'. I know I should deal with it better but if I were to talk about it, say in circle time, where we do deal with name calling, I would worry it would be reported back to parents. A male teacher with 10-year-olds talking about homosexuality - I couldn't take the risk."

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