Tolerant talk must include sexuality

16th February 2007 at 00:00
The Jade Goody versus Shilpa Shetty story was an excellent stimulus for discussion in my school - and, I suspect, in others. As one TV pundit put it, Channel 4's Big Brother is watched by the masses who don't watch BBC's Question Time or the news.

Big Brother provided a great platform for debate among young people. On top of that, the publication of Sir Keith Ajegbo's report on citizenship and the outpourings about "Britishness" from Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, coincided to put the issue of racism back on the front pages.

While many of the bullying and racist incidents shown were close to home and painful to watch, they provided a good vehicle for mirroring some of the worst behaviours that we witness first-hand. The denials that came later from the gang of three girls who were doing the bullying were countered by rewinding the tape and letting the individuals see the behaviour for themselves.

There is certainly nothing entertaining about racism, and I know most schools will challenge racist behaviour and try to ensure that their pupils develop understanding and tolerance. But there are many schools that do not feel it is their problem. If all their pupils belong to the same ethnic, faith or language group, they believe they can be absolved from getting involved. But this is a big mistake.

The National Union of Teachers has been running a series of conferences across the country, called The Sound of Silence. I was speaking at the Norwich event last week and it was obvious to all present that there was an urgent need to put the topic on the agenda and take action. It is not good enough to wait until some unfortunate child from a minority ethnic group arrives on the doorstep.

I attended another conference organised by our local authority on lesbian, gay and trans-sexual issues and found myself covering the same issues I had encountered on the previous day about racism. But it is clear that while most schools will take some measures to challenge racism, they are much less likely to tackle homophobia.

There appears to be a real reluctance about opening this can of worms. Why? I believe it is fear - of the reaction from pupils, parents, and perhaps the press, and maybe about the conflicting views among teachers and other staff in schools.

Whatever the reason, homophobia must be confronted and challenged in the same way as we confront and challenge racism. Our job is to educate young people and to teach them right from wrong. It cannot be right to celebrate diversity of race, language and religion if we do not also include sexual orientation. We cannot have an equal opportunities policy that excludes some groups.

Many young people suffer from homophobic bullying, insults and put-downs.

In many schools, these comments are not even picked up or questioned by staff but are accepted as contemporary street language. The word "gay" is used in much the same way as "Paki" is used - as a put-down. And to pretend otherwise is nonsense.

The issue of sexual orientation will not go away just because we avoid talking about it. Young people live in a global community made up of all sorts of people. They need to understand differences and not be threatened by them. Every school needs a very clear equal opportunities policy that has been developed by all stakeholders. That policy needs to be a living document and should be displayed and referred to throughout the school day and the school year. It needs to inform every policy that subsequently comes out of the school. Silence is not an option.

Kenny Frederick Is Head Of George Green'S Community School In East London

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