More than two-thirds of Scottish pupils believe schools are not safe places for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youngsters.
Although the survey was carried out only in the Scottish Borders, it canvassed the views of 500 pupils and is believed by LGBT Youth Scotland to reflect attitudes across the country. The findings coincide with the publication of Dealing with Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying in Scottish Schools, a "groundbreaking" guide sent to all secondaries.
The toolkit, launched last week at an LGBT Youth Scotland conference in Edinburgh last week on challenging homophobia, addresses not just blatant examples of bullying, but casual use of words such as "gay" in the playground and close-to-the-knuckle staffroom banter.
Grangemouth High took part in a trial and carried out a confidential survey of pupil attitudes. It uncovered a large number of incidents, which staff had not known about. Homophobic language was pervasive, if not always used in an intentionally malign manner: pupils did not see anything wrong with describing something as "gay" to mean substandard or unfashionable.
Staff often lacked confidence to tackle homophobia, said Nicola Masterson, principal pastoral teacher: "Challenging homophobia and prejudice has to become naturally part of everything we do."
A guidance teacher at another school revealed that the challenge was not merely to boost colleagues' confidence, but to overcome dissenting voices in the staffroom.
Musselburgh Grammar guidance teacher Stephen Gellaitry, whose school also trialled the toolkit, said S3 pupils expressed concern about the prospect of a friend coming out at school. He suggested that they might be as concerned about the response from staff as that from pupils.
One staff member with strong religious views felt unable to support the performance of a school play highlighting the effects of homophobia, arguing that people with "opposite views" should be allowed to make a presentation. The same person "had no hesitation presenting views that would be offensive to several members of the team".
Liz McIntyre, an educational psychologist in Dumfries and Galloway and parent of a gay man, explained the impact of her son's inability to be open about his sexuality at school. While she had vivid memories of his brother's formative experiences, such as finding a girlfriend, she could recollect few from the teenage years of her other son, who came out to his parents when he was 18. "He was deprived of a very basic human right - the right to be himself," she said.
Tips from the toolkit
- Describe language and behaviour specifically and check pupils understand: "Why are you calling something rubbish, `gay'? Do you know what it means to be homophobic02?"
- Explain why you are challenging pupils if they don't know what they are saying or didn't mean anything offensive: "I understand you didn't mean anything by it, but it is important you know it sounds homophobic and could hurt the people who hear it."
- Make sure your language is clear and unambiguous. Do not be afraid to name homophobia: "What you said was homophobic."
- Make the school's position clear so you do not look as if you are over- reacting in isolation: "I find what you've said unacceptable, and so would any members of staff."
- If you think a colleague's comment is homophobic, state why.
- Point out the futility of challenging pupils' homophobic comments if they are being used in the staffroom.
One boy's story
"I've always fancied other guys from a very early age," says Skot Hogg- Robertson, 19.
He "didn't think anything of it" until he went to secondary school in the east of Scotland. Even though he had not come out, he was targeted because of a demeanour he himself describes as camp.
The bullying started as barbed asides in the corridor, but got steadily worse. He was once set upon by another boy shouting the explicit sexual acts he was threatening to carry out. Skot says he was eventually being bullied by 200 people.
He missed half of both third year and fourth year. He was moved to a class with pupils who had mental health, behavioural and other problems. "It was the most fabulous thing I had ever heard of," he recalls. "I was safe in my wee sanctuary at the back of the school. I was accepted by everybody in the class."
With hindsight, however, he is upset that he was removed from mainstream classes: "I had my education compromised while the bullies had freedom to learn."
He managed to gain seven Standard grades, but left school shortly after the start of S5.
Teachers tended to turn a blind eye to the comments and offensive gestures, but Skot has some sympathy for their situation: "Teachers can't possibly be expected to educate young people about something they know nothing about."
His former school did not comment on the specifics of his experiences, but stressed that it acted "quickly and supportively" as soon as any young person was known to be suffering from bullying. The experience of most pupils testified to the school's "safe, secure and supportive environment", and it welcomed the toolkit as a means to review existing practice.
Skot describes the toolkit as "groundbreaking" and a starting point for improving the way schools handle homophobia. His experiences have not, however, put him off school for life: he wants to become a drama teacher.