Tackling homophobia in primary schools

Written by: Alex Newton | Published:
Photo: iStock

The 10th annual LGBT History Month has just come to an end. Alex Newton, from charity Stonewall, offers primary schools some best practice advice for tackling homophobia and celebrating difference

At Stonewall, to mark the recent LGBT History Month, we have been asking supporters to share their defining moments in the journey so far for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans equality.

For many, this is the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, a piece of legislation which labelled gay family relationships as "pretend". Although it banned local authorities rather than schools directly from "promoting" homosexuality, its existence caused widespread harm and confusion, with teachers unsure if they could deal with homophobic bullying and abuse.

Lots done, lots to do

Stonewall was founded in 1989 to campaign against this, and we have seen huge changes in the past quarter century. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and since then, we have worked with thousands of primary schools across the country to help them tackle homophobic bullying and celebrate difference.

There is still, however, lots to do. While we may have legal equality, LGBT people experience discrimination and harassment all too often in our workplaces, our homes and our communities.

This is particularly the case in our schools. YouGov polling for Stonewall (The Teachers' Report, 2014) shows that almost half of primary school teachers say pupils experience homophobic bullying in their schools, often for acting, dressing or behaving "differently" from others.

Homophobic bullying can affect anyone, not just those who are or will grow up to be LGBT.
To ensure all primary school pupils feel welcome, it is essential that teachers celebrate difference and different families with pupils, which includes same-sex parents. Doing this will allow children to learn how to value difference between individuals.

Stonewall's Different Families campaign helps primary schools to do just this, highlighting how families can come in all shapes and sizes using age-appropriate resources, lesson ideas and activities.

Homophobic language in schools

Homophobic language – phrases like "that's so gay" and "you're so gay" – is endemic in primary and secondary schools. When we speak to secondary school staff about the challenges in tackling this, a common refrain is that it is so ingrained from primary school that it is hard to eradicate effectively from 11 onwards.

It is an unfortunate fact that seven in 10 primary school teachers report hearing the word "gay" being used as an insult or to mean that something is rubbish, and a third of primary teachers have also heard pupils make remarks such as "poof" and "dyke" in the classroom. Shockingly, one in four primary school staff teaching five to seven-year-olds have heard this language.

We know that homophobic language is often not used with homophobic intent, but it is crucial that pupils do not grow up constantly equating "gay" with something bad, broken, rubbish or wrong. Just as racist comments would not be tolerated, nor should homophobia be left unchallenged.

In order to prevent homophobic language in your school, it is essential that all staff are trained to tackle this. Stonewall's Train the Trainer courses give primary staff the knowledge, tools and confidence to train their colleagues on this, to ensure a consistent whole-school approach to the issue.

Communicating policies to children

It is important that primary schools explicitly state that homophobic bullying and language is unacceptable. Anti-bullying policies are a key way of doing this.

All too often, though, policies are written and then left to gather dust. Yet some of the most successful primary schools we have worked with have communicated their policies addressing homophobic language to staff and students in more visual ways.

For example, we often see schools create "pledge" boards – where students create Different Families displays or anti-bullying posters which stress the need not to pick on anyone.

Many primary schools have involved pupils in creating displays around characters in Stonewall's new feature film for primary pupils, which is available free from our primary website (see further information).

A whole-school approach

To ensure that homophobia is tackled effectively, it is essential to adopt a whole-school approach.
You can train school staff at all levels to ensure that they prevent and tackle homophobic behaviour from pupils, but they also need to know that discrimination will not be tolerated from any staff or parents within your school. Sadly, almost a third of school staff have heard homophobic language from colleagues – a reminder of the legacy of Section 28.

All staff – whether class teachers, lunchtime supervisors, senior leadership and anyone else – need to know that all forms of discrimination are unacceptable and that your school actively works to prevent this.

Parental understanding

Part of a whole-school approach includes communicating with the parents and carers of your pupils – and making sure they understand why you are doing this work.

It is sometimes assumed that Stonewall's work in primary schools is about "promoting" homosexuality. In fact, our Different Families campaign stresses the importance of recognising and celebrating the differences between pupils, so that no-one feels excluded. Parents and carers should be told that pupils grow up in many different families now, and with an estimated 20,000 pupils (and growing) having same-sex parents, it is important that all pupils feel comfortable talking about their families in school.

Whether you communicate via your website, newsletters, planners or other means, it is important to be transparent. It is hard to argue that some forms of bullying should be left unchallenged by schools, so don't be afraid to tell parents and carers that your school will actively challenging homophobic bullying, and this means celebrating difference.

Preparation for Ofsted

Creating an inclusive space also presents numerous other benefits to your school, its staff and its pupils. For example, Ofsted inspectors now ask primary school pupils whether they ever hear homophobic language and whether pupils are picked on for not being a "typical boy" or "typical girl".

Pupils are also asked whether they have been taught about different families, including same-sex parents.

Empowering staff

Just eight per cent of primary school staff have received specific training on how to tackle homophobic bullying. We know that primary school teachers want the best for their students – however sometimes they are unaware that homophobia might be an issue within their school. Indeed, many might not feel equipped to deal sensitively and effectively with homophobic language. Teacher training can help fix these issues and empower staff to celebrate difference more generally.

Encourage pupils to thrive

Homophobic language and bullying can often affect the academic achievement and all-round wellbeing of the victims. It is integral that issues of discrimination are tackled head-on and as soon as they arise to prevent this, and to give all primary school pupils equal opportunity to reach their full potential.

Young people who see their own families reflected in school and their learning, for instance children of same-sex parents, are more likely to feel included and go on to perform better academically. University of Cambridge research for Stonewall (The School Report, 2012) shows the detrimental impact homophobic bullying has on mental health, attainment and future educational choices.

  • Alex Newton is education officer with the charity Stonewall.

Further information

Stonewall's School Champions programme works with primary schools across the UK to promote a safe and inclusive learning environment to students and teaching staff and empower them to tackle any instances of homophobic bullying. Visit www.stonewall.org.uk/teachertraining. For more on the Stonewall Different Families campaign, visit
http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_school/education_for_all/primary_schools/different_families/ and for more on the free film resources and other materials, go to www.stonewallprimary.org.uk

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