Tackling homophobic bullying

Written by: HTU | Published:

In 2009, 75 per cent of pupils at Alfred Salter Primary School were hearing homophobic language on a daily basis. Now, the school is to become the only primary in the country offering training days to support school staff in tackling homophobic bullying.

The Equality Act now lists sexual orientation and gender/transgender as protected characteristics and anti-bullying work has particular relevance under the new Ofsted framework, as the school’s actions to prevent homophobic bullying are examined as part of the behaviour and safety judgement. Inspectors are increasingly asking children questions pertaining to prejudice-based bullying and the use of homophobic language.

In 2007, Stonewall published The Teachers Report which found that 75 per cent of primary school teachers were regularly hearing homophobic language used in a pejorative way. Evidence shows that homophobic bullying impacts upon attainment, attendance, physical and mental wellbeing and may result in self-harm and sometimes suicide. It is important to note that anyone can be targeted – pupils, staff and parents alike.

I have been deputy headteacher of Alfred Salter for six years, during this time I never kept my identity as a gay man secret, however at no point did I feel the need to place my identity as a gay man before my role as a teacher.

In 2009, a number of factors came into play which not only shifted my perception of what being openly gay at work could mean, but ultimately led to the school establishing itself as a training centre.

The first of these was our ongoing programme of “Inspirational Speakers” – people stemming from diverse backgrounds who come and talk to our pupils to raise aspirations. We aim to provide a diverse range of role models, could a gay role model therefore not provide a positive image for pupils? Suddenly my lack of open disclosure around being gay seemed to me to be letting pupils down.

Second, the number of pupils expressing doubts over their gender identity is increasing as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters become more widely seen in the media. None of the professionals in school felt equipped to support these children and as a gay man I feared that by getting involved myself I may be perceived to be “leading the pupils”.

Third, was a huge increase in the use of homophobic language and the pejorative use of the word “gay” – for example “those trainers are so gay”. Of particular interest was that when these incidents occurred, pupils where often told not to say the word gay as it was “not a nice thing to say”, therefore compounding the negative. For a child with gay family or friends this has the potential to be particularly upsetting.

The fourth factor was the noticeable way that every incident of homophobic bullying was being referred to me. Would every racism incident in a school be referred to a Black staff member?

Suddenly as a leadership team we had lots of questions.

The Stonewall research presented hard evidence that standards in schools are being affected by an epidemic of homophobic bullying.

In November 2009, pupils and staff completed an “equalities questionnaire” which found:

• 75 per cent of pupils were hearing homophobic bullying/language on a daily basis.

• 65 per cent of staff felt the pejorative use of the word gay was not homophobic.

• No staff had received training to enable them to support LGBT pupils or tackle homophobia.

These statistics shocked us and we immediately set about communicating our resolve to all stakeholders in order to address these issues. Anti-Bullying Week letters to parents and governors provided an effective opportunity for this.

In assembly, the pupil questionnaire data was fed-back to pupils and discussed and I took the opportunity to make the effects of homophobic bullying real to the children by sharing my own experiences of being bullied at school by pupils and staff for being gay. The pupils were highly receptive and were able to make clear links to other forms of discrimination.

Our next step was to publish an equalities core priority as part of our school development plan. I provided training for all staff and engaged in discussions with pupils that would establish explicit agreements around the use of homophobic language.

In January 2010, I delivered a one-day INSET to all staff, from the premises manager to teachers to cover supervisors. Having showed the excellent Stonewall DVD FIT, I led the staff through a range of reflective activities in a safe, respectful environment that enabled us to challenge assumptions and misconceptions.

Once staff were familiar with the level of the problem and the potential effects upon standards and pupil welfare, any barriers to talking about homophobia and LGBT people fell away. As one member of staff said, if these statistics were around racist bullying we would not hesitate to address the problem.

Other activities involved clarifying the nature of homophobic language and bullying, finding curriculum and assembly opportunities to raise these issues, and developing a strategic approach to the use of relevant role models.

Staff undertook a series of role-plays aimed at generating agreed responses to help deal positively with incidents without compounding negative associations further. We explored further support for teachers, relevant resources, books about different families, and ways to measure the impact of the strategies we were about to employ.

Teachers were also supported in writing and delivering lessons. Governor and parent workshops were held and key policies, home-school agreements and behaviour charters were all amended to make explicit reference to homophobic and transphobic bullying.

By November 2011, we were showing a drastic reduction in the amount of homophobic and other forms of prejudice-based bullying. Attendance was up as was attainment, trends which have continued. Subtler effects included a greater sense of cohesion and acceptance and a greater willingness on behalf of pupils, parents and staff to be authentic and open about who they are.

We now start each school year with a whole-school topic called Our Diverse Heritage which is complemented by an Overcoming Adversity topic in the spring term.

Teachers find relevant opportunities to discuss homophobia and use LGBT role models in the same manner they would address racism and issues around body image and disability. Philosophy for Children techniques have proved to be a powerful tool in structuring the sessions.

Our strategy was now being termed “Inclusion for All” and over the course of the next year news of this work spread to other schools and was featured in the national press.

I also documented our work at Alfred Salter alongside my own experiences of homophobic bullying on a website, including interviews with school staff at every level who have worked to tackle homophobic bullying (see further information for details).

In September this year, I turned Inclusion for All into a charitable organisation and now Alfred Salter will be running three training days this academic year.

Reflection has enabled us to gain a clear sense of the overarching strategies that enable this work to be most effective in providing a school culture and ethos wherein all forms of prejudice-based bullying can be addressed. These include:

• A school culture based upon the rights and respect of the individual.

• Activities that develop self-awareness and empathy.

• The use of a diverse, relevant range of role-models, including pupils, staff, celebrities, sports people and parents.

• Whole-school events that celebrate and encourage the sharing of individuals and their family backgrounds.

• Use of LGBT people to support whole-staff training and debunk misconceptions from outset.

• Using pupil voice data to drive the process.

• Transparency.

• Schools expressing their statutory obligations with clarity.

• Child-centred.

• Teaching around homophobia alongside racism or other forms of prejudice.

• Sharing good practice.

• Engaging in activities that enable staff to recognise how open to making assumptions they are.

• Whole-school agreements.

Homophobic bullying is endemic, it damages children’s lives and contributes to the lowering of standards. Homophobic bullying has gone unchecked in our schools for many years resulting in countless individuals suffering physical and emotional damage and seeing their live chances compromised as a result.

School leaders may express hesitation in engaging in this work, for fear of offending parents or people of faith. However, our role as school leaders is to face challenge and drive forward innovation for the sake of the brilliant young people in our care.



• Shaun Dellenty is deputy headteacher at Alfred Salter Primary School in the London Borough of Southwark. Follow him on Twitter @ShaunDellenty



Further information

• Inclusion For All: www.shaundellenty.com

• Alfred Salter will begin delivering its training from November 15, 2012. Visit http://cpdnet.org/product/tackling-homophobic-bullying-language-in-schools/

• For a feature previewing this year's Anti-Bullying Week, which takes place later this month (November), click here.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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