Glad to be gay-friendly: How one faith school is tackling the issue of homophobic bullying

Children in faith schools are more likely to suffer homophobic bullying.

Richard Garner
Thursday 08 March 2012 01:00 GMT

In the end it was a "no-brainer", according to Paddy Storrie, deputy head of St George's, a faith school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, which today will receive a national award for the way it has tackled homophobic bullying. He had just seen some material produced by Stonewall, the gay rights campaign group, on the effect of homophobic bullying and found it "just jaw-dropping".

It sickened him to read that children in faith schools were more likely to be subjected to homophobic bullying than those in non-faith schools – 75 per cent of gay and lesbian children said they had been subjected to it, compared with 65 per cent in non-faith schools.

"I just thought: if there's a member of the school community that might be having an utterly miserable time, it was our Christian duty to do something about it," he says.

St George's is in a unique position – it was the first ever co-educational boarding school to be set up in the country just over 100 years ago, transferring from the private sector to the state in the 1960s. Being a boarding school, it realised that, if there was homophobic bullying, or even if pupils were just made to feel uncomfortable about their sexuality, there was a possibility they could never escape from it.

Despite being founded by a Church of England clergyman, it is non-denominational and one of the top performing comprehensive schools. Norman Hall, its headteacher, says: "If we had been a Catholic foundation, Baptist or right-wing evangelical school we couldn't possibly have taken this stance because the teachings of those churches are definitely homophobic."

As a result of the school's policy, role models from the gay community have been invited to address pupils. A visit by Sir Ian McKellen was followed by a presentation from a serving gay serviceman in the Royal Navy. In addition, staff have clamped down on the use of abusive words – such as the term "gay" in the playground, when it is used to describe something rotten or to be belittled. If a pupil uses language that is offensive, they are immediately taken to task and sanctions could follow if they do not apologise for their behaviour, although, the school's chaplain, Adrian Manning, can only recall one such incident in recent times.

However, Storrie says: "We recognise that any sort of comment that's undermining of people on any basis has got to be challenged. I encourage staff to challenge it more openly than they normally would do. Normally, they might take them off to one side, but in this case the person who is a victim might not be the person next to them, but might be 10 yards away down the corridor. They're longing for you to say you won't stand for it."

Alice Humphrey, who teaches music and politics in the school, is gay and can recall when she was seeking a job at a Catholic school that she was specifically asked whether she was gay.

"I said no, but when I was offered the job I turned it down," she said. "If I'd said yes, I've no doubt I wouldn't have been employed."

Stonewall says its work with faith schools has shown that growing numbers are now prepared to combat homophobic bullying in schools – a practice described as "endemic" in faith schools at last year's National Union of Teachers conference.

Both it and St George's would agree that there is a need to remain vigilant to ensure that the next generation of schoolchildren do not suffer during their school life.

As St George's submission for its award stated: "With many students living in a faith landscape which is less benign in its attitudes, we have to work hard to genuinely win hearts and minds rather than just impact on observed behaviour."

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