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It’s time to tackle homophobic bullying in our schools

AndrewWhite Stonewall blogThe events of 2016 from Brexit to the US presidential election have been a shock to some, and a welcome change for others. Whatever you think of Brexit, or the US election, there is no doubt that these campaigns have revealed deep divisions in society: they have caused fear in some communities, and empowered others.

The politics of fear and division have not served as a great role model for our young people. Some will argue that we should move on from talking about identity, that hate and bullying for LGBT people is a thing of the past. Like many within the LGBT communities I know from direct experience that this is not the case. Hate and bullying are alive and thriving, some apparently feel emboldened to be more vocal in their hatred. There are reports of a spike in reported hate crime and we know that bullying is already a daily reality for many young LGBT people.

Homophobic language and gender identity bullying is widespread in our schools. Almost nine in ten secondary school staff surveyed in Wales say pupils in their school are bullied, harassed or called names for being, or suspected of being, lesbian, gay or bi. More than half of lesbian and gay pupils have never been taught about lesbian and gay people or seen lesbian and gay issues addressed in class.

As a dad, I expect my child’s experience of school to be fun, broad-ranging, challenging and rewarding. I also expect school to be a place where all children feel safe, included and encouraged to reach their full potential.
We know that our experiences at school stay with us our whole life. Education has the ability to lift children out of poverty, enrich their lives and help them see the world through other people’s eyes. A poor experience can limit personal development, damage confidence and have a negative impact on long term prospects.

Our research The Teachers’ Report provides clear evidence that in those schools that are taking simple steps to tackle bullying, pupils are less likely to have been bullied and much more likely to feel happy and welcome in their schools. The study shows that there is still much more to be done. More than half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in Britain still experience homophobic bullying and its damaging impact is just as pronounced. Two in five gay pupils who experience bullying attempt or think about taking their own life as a direct consequence. Three in five bullied gay young people say that it is affecting their studies and seven in ten of all lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils admit to skipping school at some point. Only one in four gay pupils say a teacher has spoken with them about how homophobic bullying is wrong.

Despite the progress of recent years there is an awful lot left to do. It is heart-breaking that more than two in five primary school teachers and almost nine in ten secondary school teachers surveyed say that pupils in their school experience homophobic bullying. Homophobic language remains stubbornly prevalent even at primary school, and worryingly, many of those surveyed hear it from other school staff.

It beggars belief that more than a decade after Section 28 was repealed, a majority of school staff surveyed say that their school does not allow them to teach about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues or that they don’t know if they are allowed. Teachers are our most powerful resource in tackling prejudice and bullying.

The vast majority we surveyed believe that they have a duty to prevent and respond to homophobic bullying. They also say that different types of families and lesbian, gay and bisexual issues should be addressed in schools. It is really encouraging that those who describe ways in which they tackle bullying report positive effects and those who have addressed lesbian, gay and bisexual issues in the classroom say they would do so again. Given this, it’s hugely disappointing that nine in ten primary and four in five secondary school staff surveyed have not received any specific training on these matters.

Our research shows that secondary schools which take an active, positive approach to tackling homophobic language and bullying get the best results. This is what our School Champions and Train the Trainers programmes offer to your schools: a partnership with Stonewall Cymru.

Since the Welsh Government effectively repealed Section 28 in 2002, we have been working to tackle homophobic, biphobic, and more recently transphobic bullying in Wales’ schools through our teacher training programme.

It can be challenging to tackle homophobic bullying and gender stereotyping in schools. Nine out of ten secondary school teachers say they have not received any specific training on how to tackle homophobic bullying. In the past year we have worked with over 200 school staff right across Wales by giving expert and tailored advice. The potential student reach of these professionals is over 175,000 young people.

By working with Stonewall Cymru to mitigate the worst harms of homophobic and gender identity bullying, schools across Wales are empowering staff to help steer students towards their academic goals.

We have recently published a comprehensive guide to equip school staff to celebrate difference and challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on both primary and secondary schools.

If Wales is to be prosperous, resilient, healthy and more equal, then our schools must be fully engaged in tackling bullying and prejudice, equipped with the tools to do so and held to account on their progress. The evidence shows the need for greater, more coordinated action by all the key players including Welsh Government, Estyn, local authorities, education consortia and teacher training providers. The Wales we want is one where every child and young person can reach their full potential. We will achieve this by tackling all forms of bullying and prejudice. This was our founding vision, and it remains our top priority today.

Andrew White

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