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Tackling the homophobic bullying of staff

Homophobia has once again hit the headlines. While the impact on pupils is well-debated, Julian Stanley considers how the issue affects teachers.

John Paul McQueen is a teacher who is being bullied by his students over his sexuality. The bullying began when two of his students set him up with a male escort in school after hours. John Paul and the escort were then locked in a room together while the students made an anonymous call to the headteacher. Luckily, the head saw through the plan and suspended the students. However, this only made things worse as the suspension turns other students against him and they began to hand in assignments with homophobic remarks and titles.

I am not a regular viewer of Hollyoaks, but this storyline has obviously gained my attention. Yet just how realistic is it? While it is doubtful that many students go to the dramatic lengths of hiring escorts, can teachers be the victim of homophobic bullying too?

Back in 2005, a snapshop survey of 197 teachers found that 66 per cent had experienced discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of these, 83 per cent said it had taken the form of homophobic harassment or discrimination; 71 per cent had experienced this from pupils.

The survey also found that only a quarter of schools had a code of conduct on homophobic, biphobic or transphobic behaviour, and in 65 per cent of cases, the respondents felt that the policy was not properly enforced.

Meanwhile, the impact of this kind of harassment was seen as potentially devastating. Of those who completed the survey, 50 had become stressed or ill, 24 were afraid to go into work and 14 teachers resigned, all as a direct result of their experiences in school. 

Of course, this was eight years ago, so things will have moved on substantially in that time. Or will they? Surprisingly, it is difficult to say as there has been little or no research in this area. 

Stonewall’s 2009 Teachers’ Report found that nine in 10 secondary school teachers say that children and young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, currently experience homophobic bullying in school. However, the report focuses on the impact on students rather than teachers.

Last month, Stonewall launched a new campaign with Mumsnet targeting the use of homophobic language in schools. It follows its own research which found that 99 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people hear phrases such as “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” in school and that 84 per cent are distressed when they hear this. Again, we must not forget the impact on teachers who will also hear this same use of homophobic language.

Of the callers to the Teacher Support Network support line this year who have identified as LGBT, key issues have included not only emotional concerns such as anxiety, stress and depression, but also professional issues like allegations and capability procedures. Of course it is hard to say whether these issues are linked to sexuality, but there is cause for concern.

Anecdotally, we know of a number of teachers, who are afraid to come out to their colleagues or senior managers, not to mention their students. We have also heard stories from teachers who have been bullied by colleagues, pupils and even parents when their sexuality is revealed (or presumed).

Yet these are just a few stories. Nothing can really be done until the full extent of the problem is identified. Without research on the impact of this kind of behaviour on teachers, the issue remains hidden.

Next year, we will be looking into researching the homophobic harassment and bullying of LGBT teaching staff, but in the meantime it is vital that any teacher experiencing this kind of abuse seeks appropriate support, whether it be through school policy, union assistance, our helplines, or by talking to a trusted colleague.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).


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