Successful schools adopt a cross-curriculum approach when discussing LGBT issues
Thursday 12 March 2009
Stonewall, the organisation that campaigns for equality and justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. But perhaps celebration doesn't really capture the mood: the lobbying group, which was founded in 1989 to campaign against Section 28, finds that six years after the repeal of that legislation it is just as busy as it was under Margaret Thatcher.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from "promoting" homosexuality. While the legislation applied only to local authorities, its impact was felt throughout the education system, leaving teachers unclear about what they could and could not say about gay issues.
The result was silence which, even six years after Section 28's repeal, leaves many gay pupils isolated within a school culture that, at best, barely acknowledges their existence and, at worst, tolerates crude and often violent bullying.
In fact, Stonewall's 2007 school report made depressing reading. It found that homophobic bullying is almost endemic in Britain's schools, with 65 per cent of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils experiencing direct bullying, a number that rises to 75 per cent among those attending faith schools. Even those not directly bullied are learning in an environment where homophobic language and comments are commonplace, where the word "gay" is virtually synonymous with rubbish or useless.
"What we are seeing now is the aftermath of Section 28," says Gary Nunn, spokesman for Stonewall, who says homophobic bullying is treated far less seriously than other forms of prejudice. "It will take quite a long time to remove the festering legacy of silence that Section 28 had on schools."
Stonewall is among the organisations working to dismantle that legacy. It has produced a DVD, Spell it Out, to help teachers gain confidence when discussing gay issues. Its Education Champions Programme targets local authorities and it is also behind FIT, a hip-hop musical, which has toured schools up and down the land, challenging the way many young people use "gay" as an insult. FIT has now been seen by 20,000 pupils and Stonewall is fundraising to put the play out on DVD.
There's a workshop that accompanies the play, where, astonishingly, many pupils are open about their homophobic views. "It's seen as cool to be homophobic in a way that it's not cool to be racist," says Nunn. "The good news is that we have pupils walk out of the workshop after seeing FIT and they admit their views have changed."
Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that supports the young trans community, is also touring schools with a play and workshop based on the real-life experiences of LGBT people. It has been seen by about 500 young people.
"You cannot change everyone's attitude in the space of two or three hours but we are very pleased with the response," says Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence. "It's a journey for the pupils, with a number of them saying that after taking part in the workshop they would now intervene if they saw homophobic or transphobic bullying."
The problem for Gendered Intelligence, as for so many organisations tackling this issue, is getting into schools. The barriers are financial and cultural.
Nigel Tart of Schools Out, a lobby group, says there are big differences from school to school. "It all depends on the head and the governors," says Tart. "Some schools are doing some really good work, but for most schools this is not a core issue."
For too many schools, gay issues remain confined to personal, social and health education (PSHE), in the context of discussions about bullying and Aids. In response, Schools Out launched LGBT History Month, which has been running every February since 2005 in a bid to get gay issues back into schools.
Stoke Newington School in London is among those to have embraced the initiative. It started when music teacher Elly Barnes did a project looking at gay-and-out rock stars and then spread across the curriculum, even into maths where they studied Alan Turing, who cracked the enigma code and invented modern computer science.
This cross-curriculum approach is welcomed as there's a worry among some in the LGBT movement that by putting any discussion of gay issues in a box only reaffirms the isolation felt by young gay or trans people.
"Successful schools don't put LGBT issues in a box," says Mark Bennett, who works with primary and secondary school teachers and is part of the No Outsiders project, a University of Sunderland research scheme that is focused on 15 primary schools. He says the schools that teach these issues well make sure they include LGBT examples when talking about relationships or families in general. "When they talk about civil rights or the law," he adds, "then LGBT issues are also discussed."
And while it's important to focus on homophobic bullying, there also has to be a discussion of LGBT identities. "It's like talking about racism without mentioning that not everyone is white," says Bennett. "Even if people are not bullied they will still feel isolated because they never hear of other people like them."
The good news is that schools that do address this issue can make a major difference. As the Stonewall report found, in schools that say homophobic bullying is wrong, gay young people are 60 per cent less likely to be bullied. That's an awful lot of young people getting off to a better, happier start in life.
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