Why schools need to tackle homophobia

Posted on: 12 Jan 2016

Richard Cairns, Head at Brighton College, discusses why tackling homophobia should be at the top of all schools’ agendas…

If a child at school was marginalized, verbally or physically abused or shunned because of their faith, their gender or their colour, teachers and parents would rightly be horrified. Because alienating or singling out anyone because they are different from the majority is something all schools refuse to tolerate, isn’t it? Yet many, many children around the country suffer casual or intended bullying every day because they are gay or lesbian.

A 2014 YouGov survey revealed almost nine out of 10 secondary school teachers in Britain say pupils at their school have been bullied or harassed for being suspected of being gay, lesbian or bisexual. Yet eight in 10 have received no training at all on how to approach this issue. And more than 50% admit that they don’t routinely take steps when they come across homophobic language.

It is for this reason that my school recently hosted a pastoral conference for head teachers from across the country, both state and independent, which aimed to raise this issue and work out ways in which we could tackle it. I felt Brighton College, which has a history of tolerance and respect for difference, was a fitting venue for the conference. It was here back in 2013 that the first openly gay head boy, Will Emery, was voted in. The pupils very much took a so-what approach to this – he was the best candidate for the job and that was all there was to it. More than 100 years before this, Old Brightonian Edward Carpenter rose to prominence as a founding member of the Labour Party and the Fabian Society and emerged as an early gay rights campaigner.

Our speakers – the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan, LGBT activist Lord Cashman, Stonewall’s Dominic Arnall and the journalist Matthew Parris – were passionate about fighting homophobia too. While Lord Cashman spoke movingly about his own early struggle for acceptance, Ms Morgan made it clear that she wanted the heads sitting listening to her to think long and hard about how their schools could become safe havens for gay and lesbian children, not places where they needed to be on their guard. After all, we are not talking about small numbers here. A 2015 You Gov survey of young people’s sexual attitudes in Britain found that 11% reported being exclusively gay or mainly gay with a significant further number describing themselves as bisexual. This equates to around 900,000 homosexual 16-24 year olds in Britain.

The problem is that teachers have not been clear on how to deal with same-sex families and when to tackle homophobia. It starts right at the beginning of the educational journey for children, with more than half of primary school teachers reporting to Stonewall that they have not addressed different types of families in the classroom at all – a depressing fact given that, according to the Office of National Statistics, around 20,000 young people are now growing up with same-sex parents. But this lack of action is not surprising since many teachers at both primary and secondary say they are uneasy about how to tackle these issues, for fear of recriminations from parents who disapprove.

Stonewall has further shocking statistics: some two thirds of secondary school teachers and a third of primary school teachers say they hear words like “poof” and “faggot” bandied about at school yet it seems little is currently being done about it – only 8% of primary school teachers and 17% of secondary school teachers report receiving specific training on dealing with homophobic bullying.

The aim of all teachers is that children in their care feel safe, happy and able to focus on learning, no matter their faith, race or sexuality. For too long, too many children have suffered casual or intentional abuse which has not been addressed. It is, then, my fervent wish that our conference managed to raise the importance of tackling homophobia to the top of schools’ agendas.

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