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The role of schools in tackling homophobia

July 7, 2008 2:01 PM
By Nick Clegg MP in Stonewall Education conference, July 2008

It's a great pleasure to be here with you today.

As you all know, Stonewall was founded twenty years ago. And it has come a long way in a short time. Not only have you achieved your original objective - and consigned the hated section 28 to history - but your campaigning has helped push forward the gay rights agenda in so many other ways too.

Adoption rights for same-sex couples.

Employment protection for gay men and lesbians.

The equalisation of the age of consent.

Protection from hate crime.

Civil partnerships.

And now an Equality Bill that will outlaw homophobic bullying in the workplace.

These are great strides forward.

Dismantling the apparatus of legal discrimination makes our country fairer. But more than that, it gives a clear signal bigotry will not be tolerated. And that signal helps to build the momentum towards a cultural shift. In 2008 our primary focus is no longer the fight against discriminatory laws - it is the fight against discriminatory attitudes.

I want to be part of that fight.

And I am determined we will win.

As a liberal, I have a fundamental belief in freedom. It's part of the core values of my party that no-one should be enslaved by ignorance or conformity. It's my aim to strive for a Britain where each and every citizen has the opportunity to fulfil their potential and live their life the way that suits them best. That is what the Liberal Democrats are for.

Liberalism does not just promote tolerance of people's differences.

It accepts, embraces and encourages each and every individual to be themselves. It celebrates people's differences and says that everyone has the right to happiness regardless of their background or identity.

That ethos goes hand in hand with gay and lesbian rights.

It's the reason the Liberal Democrats campaigned long and hard for the recognition of those rights - long before they had the popularity that they enjoy today. And it's one of the reasons that I joined this party, and why I am proud to lead it today.

Moving forward

The question for all of us is how to make progress. How do we shape a society in which the bigotry and intolerance that fuel homophobia are isolated and driven out?

Part of the solution - is leadership. It's about politicians, and judges and police officers, and teachers and television presenters - all of those who are in positions of authority - leading by example. Making clear that in their sphere of influence, discrimination is unacceptable.

Part of the solution lies with the media. It's about how gay men, lesbians and transgender people are portrayed and the cultural cues that people take from that. So I urge Stonewall and those who share its values to keep pressing decision-makers and those in positions of authority to hear the voices of gay people. And to speak for those gay people who feel inhibited from making their own voices heard, but whose rights are being abused.

But the biggest part of changing attitudes towards gay people is about education. It's about using every opportunity to dispel the myths and the prejudices that exist, and highlighting the positive worth and the equal value of every single member of our society. Because you know and I know that where prejudice takes root, it grows.

So while we must seek to educate everyone about equality, we must recognise the central importance of teaching our young people how and why discrimination is wrong. It is in our schools that we must teach the values of inclusion and acceptance.

And that is what I want to focus on today.

Schools

I want to examine the unique role that schools can play in tackling homophobia and its consequences.

Second, I want explore how we can better equip teaching staff to support pupils who are gay or questioning their sexuality.

And third, I want to explain the positive contribution that this will make to the wider context in which gay people are seen.

Schools are of course in a unique position. They are a fundamental part of the daily life of millions of young people. Parents rightly expect that teachers will not just educate their children in reading, writing and science, but that they will care for pupils and protect their interests, so that they have the security and the confidence to make the best of their educational opportunities.

And for some, school is, to be frank, an opportunity to provide that kind of care when it is missing from home life.

Most parents do their very best for their children and seek to infuse them with good values and respect for others. But that is not always the case. There are parents who are careless, neglectful or cruel. And who do not teach their children the kind of values that we, as a society, expect of one another. That will always be the case. And I make no apology for saying that schools have a role in addressing and counter-balancing parental failure.

That applies to homophobia and to homophobic bullying.

A parent may be racist. But our schools still teach that racism is wrong. And it is their acknowledged duty to tackle it where it is manifest.

Equally, a parent may be homophobic. Why is it that our schools have a higher threshold for tolerating homophobia in the school environment?

Stonewall's School Report shows the scale of the problem.

Ninety eight percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils say that they hear derogatory remarks about gay people at school. Ninety eight percent. It's heartbreaking.

Two thirds of these young people have experienced homophobic bullying at school.

And almost one third say that an adult in the school environment is responsible for homophobic incidents.

Meanwhile, a clear majority of gay pupils - or those perceived to be gay - and who face discrimination never report it. If they do tell a teacher, on nearly two thirds of occasions nothing is done. And in the specific case of homophobic language, they report that just 7% of teachers respond every time that they hear it. Of course there are many teachers who do a great job in tackling discrimination against young gay people.

And there are others who want to, but who feel conflicted about their role in doing so. That is the shameful legacy of the Conservatives' Section 28.

But there are teachers who maintain prejudiced views themselves, or who are simply unwilling to tackle those views when others express them. This is shocking. But more than that - it is a dereliction of duty.

For the last six years, schools have had a statutory obligation to tackle homophobic bullying. Yet just a quarter of schools actually make specific mention of the need to tackle it - or the importance of welcoming and supporting gay people through a statement of inclusivity or codified anti-homophobic bullying policies.

The impact on pupils is enormous and lasting. It eats away at the confidence of gay people - and those who are picked on because people think they're gay. And all too often that undermines their life chances. Half of young lesbian and gay people feel unable to be themselves at school. And seven out of ten who have experienced homophobic bullying feel that this impacts directly on their academic performance.

Gay pupils have higher levels of truancy, drop-out, mental health problems, panic attacks and eating disorders. Worst of all, one survey has shown that half of LGB adults who were bullied at school contemplated self-harm or suicide. And four in ten had attempted it at least once.

These facts are as tragic as they are outrageous. It is the moral responsibility of every teacher in every school to take an active stand in changing this. It is their duty to tackle discrimination every time that they encounter it and to demonstrate zero tolerance of homophobic bullying. And it is the duty of government - central and local - to see that they do.

The recent DSCF guidance for teachers on tackling homophobic bullying - co-authored by Stonewall and EACH - is an excellent start. For the first time it puts the government squarely in support of schools and teachers who want to confront this kind of intimidation. And it makes clear that staff should tackle every incident of homophobia - whether verbal or physical - when it comes to light.

You deserve congratulation for your role in making this happen. But I want to go further still.

Proposals for change

First, I want better monitoring of homophobic incidents in schools. Currently, schools are obliged to keep a record of racist incidents - and rightly so. But no such rule applies to homophobic bullying. The government should be made to face up to the true extent of homophobia in schools. And parents and pupils also have a right to know about the extent to which pupils are vulnerable to discrimination in the classroom and the playground.

So schools should be compelled to record and disclose all serious incidents of homophobic bullying - by which I mean physical and sexual assault, damage to personal belongings and school work, cyber-bullying, and sustained personal campaigns of verbal abuse.

Second, schools' performance in recognising and tackling homophobia should be an assessed criterion in OFSTED schools inspections. I'm not proposing a massive bureaucratic extension of the inspection regime. Just an expectation that an inspector should check out schools' anti-homophobic bullying policies, and make sure active steps are taken to implement it. Again, this would make public the degree to which schools are protecting their pupils.

Taken together, these measures would motivate teachers, governors, parents - and even pupils themselves - to develop clear strategies for tackling homophobic bullying.

We need to turn the spotlight on every school, and expose prejudice where it exits. Because with transparency and openness will come the pressure for the equality and protection that all young people deserve. Of course I do not underestimate the challenge that this brings to schools. When almost all LGB pupils have experienced homophobia in one guise or another, stamping it out will be no easy task. It will require the advice, guidance and support of experts in the field.

So my third step is to urge every local authority to respond positively to Stonewall's new Education Champions programme. That programme is being launched here today. It is a dynamic initiative that will empower local authorities with the knowledge and insight that they need to tackle the incidents of homophobic bullying specific to their area. It will enable them to meet the high standards that increased transparency and accountability will bring.

And I am proud that of the five councils that have agreed to take part so far, the Liberal Democrats share power in four.

I have no doubt that over the coming years it will prove as successful and valuable as Stonewall's Diversity Champions, which has done such good work to encourage equality in the workplace.

That is why I have written today to all Liberal Democrat council leaders urging them to become Education Champions when asked by Stonewall - and encouraging those whose schools are struggling to tackle homophobia to come forward and proactively ask to take part.

Beyond anti-bullying

Creating a supportive environment for LGB pupils involves much more than just tackling homophobic bullying - essential though that is. The absence of active discrimination is a necessary starting point. But it is not the sum total of what we need. The provision of active support and positive inclusion is vital for letting young people know that they are equal in value and deserving of respect. But I also want to make sure that teachers are trained to be aware of the issues that confront young gay and lesbian pupils. so that they are able to give those pupils the care and understanding that they need.

I know that I don't need to explain to this audience just how tough it can be for a young person to come to terms with their sexuality. It can be a confusing and intimidating time. Often young LGB people will not know whether they can trust family or friends to react well or be supportive. Sometimes they will tell those closest to them only to have their trust betrayed. Too many young people still find themselves on the street when they tell their parents that they are gay. So it's vital - vital - that teachers understand those difficulties. That they know how to advise, reassure and support gay or questioning pupils who come to them seeking help, and that they feel confident in the classroom about addressing and acknowledging the existence, the achievements and the essential equality of gay people, without fear of retribution.

All too often they simply don't.

We can't really be surprised by that. The challenges facing gay people are complex and sensitive. And the threat of an aggrieved parent who would rather that these issues are not discussed is a constant when sexuality orientation comes up for discussion.

So we cannot assume that teachers will have the knowledge or the confidence to deal approach those issues with best practice. Training is essential. But given the current demands on school budgets - and given the reality that some head teachers and governors are unwilling to prioritise gay pupils' needs - persuading schools to spend their INSET budgets on specialised training - or coming to this kind of conference - will always be an uphill struggle.

Having supportive, trained teachers to turn to should not be a matter of the luck of the draw for gay pupils. It should available to every one of them. So I'm calling on the Schools Minister, Ed Balls, to look at ways to make that happen. I believe that the Department of Children, Schools and Families should consider directly funding professional training, so that local authorities can provide it free of charge. And in the longer term, I want the DCSF to look at making comprehensive training on sexual orientation issues integral to the teacher training syllabus - so that every new teacher is aware of their obligation to care for the needs of young gay people - and that they are given the skills that they need to do so.

The benefits

Building a safe, tolerant school environment for lesbian and gay pupils is an end in itself. But I believe that it will have positive lasting effects for the lives of gay people - and for the rest of society too. We may not be able to rid our society completely of homophobia, but that is no reason not to try. If we can ensure that the teaching environment meets homophobic bullying with the same degree of outrage as it does racist bullying - and if we can ensure that teachers are confident to give proper recognition and support to gay people - we can reshape our schools into more accepting, open, and supportive environments.

And help young people who are gay - or perceived to be gay - to make the most of their academic potential as well as their personal lives. They will then have the confidence and the skills that will stand them in good stead in later life too.

Of course prejudice exists in the workplace. But if the young homophobe is taught that their ignorance is unacceptable - and that every individual is equal - I believe that prejudice will more likely wither on the vine there too. Today, it remains the case that there are some jobs where being gay is an uncomfortable and daunting experience. Where the fear of discrimination is not just a concern, but a crystal clear reality. Just look to the football pitch or the City board room. It is not a coincidence that you will find few openly gay people there.

I know how hard Stonewall is working to tackle that culture. But if politicians take the lead, and if educators play their part, we can tackle not just the manifestations of homophobia, but their causes too. We can educate our young people and show them why discrimination is wrong.

And our society will be the better for it.