Tackling homophobia in school


The 10th annual LGBT History Month has just come to an end. Alex Newton, from charity Stonewall, offers secondary schools some best practice advice for tackling homophobia and celebrating difference.

At Stonewall, to mark the recent LGBT History Month, we have been asking supporters to share their defining moments in the journey so far for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans equality.

For many, this is the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, a piece of legislation which labelled gay family relationships as “pretend”. Although it banned local authorities rather than schools directly from “promoting” homosexuality, its existence caused widespread harm and confusion, with teachers unsure if they could deal with homophobic bullying and abuse.

Lots done, lots to do

Stonewall was founded in 1989 to campaign against this, and we have seen huge changes in the past quarter century. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and since then, we have worked with thousands of secondary schools across the country to help them tackle homophobic bullying and celebrate difference.

There is still, however, lots to do. While we may have legal equality, LGBT people experience discrimination and harassment all too often in our workplaces, our homes and our communities.

This is particularly the case in our schools. YouGov polling for Stonewall (The Teachers’ Report, 2014) shows that nine in 10 secondary school teachers say pupils experience homophobic bullying in their schools. 

This can affect anyone, not just those who identify as LGBT. Sadly, the legacy of Section 28 is that almost a third of secondary school staff are still unsure if they are allowed to teach about LGBT issues.

To ensure all secondary pupils feel welcome, it is essential that teachers consistently tackle homophobic behaviour and create an environment and curriculum which reflects the lives and experiences of all their pupils. 

Homophobic language

Homophobic language – phrases like “that’s so gay” and “you’re so gay” – is endemic. Nine in 10 secondary teachers say they hear it in school, and 99 per cent of LGBT young people surveyed by the University of Cambridge (The School Report, 2012) said the same.

With pupils constantly equating “gay” with something rubbish, broken, defective or wrong, it is no wonder that homophobic bullying is so common in secondary schools, with the majority of those surveyed in the School Report saying they had experienced it.

We know that homophobic language is often not used with homophobic intent, but it is crucial to stamp it out. Just as racist comments would not go unchallenged, homophobia should be tackled consistently and effectively by all staff.

In order to prevent homophobic language in your school, it is essential that all staff are trained to tackle this. Stonewall’s Train the Trainer courses give teachers the knowledge, tools and confidence to train their colleagues on tackling homophobic bullying, to ensure a consistent whole-school approach to the issue. 

Communicating policies to students

It is important that secondary schools explicitly state that homophobic bullying and language is unacceptable. Anti-bullying policies are an important way of doing this.

All too often, though, policies are written and then left to gather dust. Yet some of the most successful secondary schools we have worked with have communicated their policies addressing homophobic language to staff and students in more visual ways.

For example, we often see schools create “pledge” boards based around our NoBystanders campaign – where students create displays or anti-bullying posters which stress the need to challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination.

FIT, Stonewall’s feature film for secondary school pupils, also sends a powerful message of mutual respect and the importance of diversity, as well as being genuinely popular with students (I can’t count the number of times staff and students have quoted the film to us at conferences, with a few even imitating the film’s signature dance).

A whole-school approach

To ensure that homophobia is tackled effectively, it is essential to adopt a whole-school approach.

You can train school staff at all levels to ensure that they prevent and tackle homophobic behaviour from pupils, but they also need to know that discrimination won’t be tolerated from any staff or parents within your school. Sadly, almost a third of school staff have heard homophobic language from colleagues – a reminder of the legacy of Section 28.

All staff – whether class teachers, canteen workers, senior leadership and everyone else – need to know that all forms of discrimination are unacceptable and that your school actively works to prevent this. Make clear to staff that, as part of the school’s legal duties under the Equality Act and to meet Ofsted requirements, homophobia is not tolerated.

Parental understanding

Part of a whole-school approach includes communicating with the parents and carers of your pupils – and making sure they understand why you are doing this work.

It is sometimes assumed that Stonewall’s work with secondary schools is about “promoting” homosexuality. In fact, we want what all parents and carers want – for no form of bullying to be left unchallenged in schools and for all young people to feel comfortable being themselves. This means tackling homophobic bullying effectively and supporting LGBT pupils who do decide to “come out”.

Some schools will include a plain English version of their anti-bullying policy in pupils’ planners or ask parents and carers to sign a home-school agreement which explicitly mentions tackling homophobic bullying, so that the school’s ethos is clear. Whatever the method, it is important to be transparent about what your school is doing and why.

Creating an inclusive space also presents numerous other benefits to your school, its staff and its pupils.

Preparation for Ofsted

Ofsted inspectors now ask secondary school pupils whether they have learned about homophobic bullying and ways of preventing it. Pupils are also asked whether they have been taught about different families, and whether anyone is picked on because they have same-sex parents.

Empowering staff

Just 14 per cent of secondary school staff have received specific training on how to tackle homophobic bullying. We know that secondary school teachers want the best for their students – however sometimes they are unaware that homophobia might be an issue within their school. Indeed, many might not feel equipped to deal sensitively and effectively with homophobic language. Teacher training can help fix these issues and empower staff to challenge discriminatory behaviour more generally.

Encourage pupils to thrive

Homophobic language and bullying can often affect the academic achievement and all-round wellbeing of the victims. University of Cambridge research for Stonewall (The School Report, 2012) shows the detrimental impact homophobic bullying has on mental health and pupil attainment. One in three lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils who have experienced homophobic bullying said they changed their future educational plans because of it, meaning that thousands of young people have not gone to college or university because of homophobic experiences in secondary school.

It is integral that issues of discrimination are tackled head-on and as soon as they arise to prevent this, and to give all secondary school pupils equal opportunity to reach their full potential. 

Young people who see their own lives and families reflected in school and their learning are more likely to feel included and go on to perform better academically. That’s why an inclusive curriculum featuring LGBT people and issues is so significant.

  • Alex Newton is education officer with the charity Stonewall.

Further information
Stonewall’s School Champions programme works with secondary schools across the UK to help them tackle homophobic bullying and create a safe and inclusive environment for all pupils. Visit www.stonewall.org.uk/teachertraining

Photo: iStock 


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