Too many teachers still turn a blind eye to homophobic bullying - we have to rewire their attitudes
When I was at school, the attitude of most teachers to homophobia was somewhere between turning a blind eye and active encouragement. I vividly remember one chemistry teacher making a boy's life hell, in punishment for the heinous crimes of having a slightly camp voice and not liking rugby. This was not an isolated case: off the top of my head I can think of three others who, if confronted with a child being picked on because they "acted gay", would routinely side with the bullies. Several more would gleefully take any opportunity to set out the religious case for why they disagreed with homosexuality.
However, I grew up in Belfast in the 1980s - neither a time nor a place known for its tolerance of difference. I naively assumed things would be different 25 years on.
It is true that some things have changed for the better. Section 28, which prevented discussion of homosexuality in state schools for fear that teachers would be disciplined for "promoting the lifestyle", has come and gone. Gay and lesbian teachers no longer have to hide their sexuality from their colleagues (in some schools, anyway) for fear of losing their jobs, and they also have legal protection against discrimination. We even have a Government which thought this issue was sufficiently important to be explicitly included in its coalition document.
These are all good things, but we are kidding ourselves if we think homophobia in schools has gone away. Research by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall last year showed that 90 per cent of secondary school teachers say children and young people currently experience homophobia in their school. Bullying on the basis of sexuality is more common than almost any other sort of bullying.
This is an issue for all young people, not just those who are gay or lesbian. Many children are targeted not because they are gay, but because they don't fit in with a set of assumptions about what makes a "proper" boy or girl. So boys might be picked on because they don't like football or girls because they do. "Gay" is also liberally used as a catch-all term of abuse, rather than literally meaning homosexual.
This is deeply unpleasant, but not that surprising. Some children can be breathtakingly nasty to each other, and will pick on any point of difference or perceived weakness as a pretext for bullying. This has always happened and probably always will. The real issue is how effectively schools deal with it - and this is where Stonewall's research really gets shocking. It shows an attitude from some teachers which would not be out of place in a 1970s sitcom.
One teacher told Stonewall: "I believe that homosexuality is wrong. I believe that the mollycoddling of so-called gays is wrong ... I could discuss issues with pupils who claim to be gay but I would probably not be very sympathetic."
Another said: "Homosexuality is a deviant behaviour ... There is no need to keep seeking to promote this aberrant behaviour in schools or anywhere else."
These are extreme comments, but they are not just the ravings of a few bad apples. Half of the teachers surveyed simply didn't think homophobia was a big deal, or didn't know how best to deal with it, so they tended to turn a blind eye. For young people who are gay, and might be struggling to get their heads around it, this is horrible. Stonewall found that half of such pupils had heard teachers making homophobic remarks. It must be devastating to think that the adults who are supposed to keep them safe might actually think they deserve to be bullied.
This is just not good enough. Every child in every school has the right to learn free from the fear of bullying. Part of a teacher's job is to create an environment where this can happen. Teachers need to address homophobic bullying among their pupils - and their colleagues - in the same way they would deal with any other sort of bullying. At the very least, they should think about their own behaviour and language, and how it would sound to a 14-year-old terrified of being "found out" as gay. Would that child feel able to confide in the teacher?
Most teachers would never dream of turning a blind eye to racism from a colleague, so why is homophobia any different? Yes, it is difficult to have this sort of conversation with a colleague, but teachers who pretend it isn't happening, or tell themselves it is no big deal, are letting their students down.
Tackling homophobia needs a whole-school approach and this starts at the top. Headteachers must take it seriously. They have a responsibility to make sure the whole school community knows this behaviour is unacceptable, no matter who does it. Teachers who take part in bullying of any sort are, in my view, guilty of professional misconduct. This should be a disciplinary matter.
As well as this, though, teachers need more support to give them the confidence to tackle this effectively. Teacher training, and continuing professional development, should cover how teachers deal with homophobic bullying alongside other forms of bullying. PSHE teachers should be able to access resources to help them address it through the curriculum.
It won't be easy - it is notoriously difficult to change attitudes as hard-wired as these. On the other hand, the professionalism of teachers and the standards of education have improved so much since my school days that it is surely possible to address this issue effectively.
John Connolly is principal policy adviser for education in the Office of the Children's Commissioner. National Anti-Bullying Week begins on Monday (November 15).