As the city’s lesbian and gay community prepare for Birmingham Pride Steve Ball focuses on education. He suggests that there’s still plenty to do to make our schools more inclusive and tolerant for all of our young people
Every cause has its bête noire and for the lesbian and gay community it’s our very own Dame Jill Knight, former Conservative MP for Edgbaston. She championed Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, an offensive piece of legislation designed to prevent the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. It stigmatised gay people but also galvanised the gay community. Now, 20 years since Stonewall was founded in direct response to Section 28, the charity says its education outreach work in schools is aimed at undoing the harm the clause caused to many children. Section 28 was repealed in England in 2003, but its legacy lingers: teachers indicate that they are still uneasy and confused about what they can and cannot say about being lesbian or gay.
Stonewall’s work has revealed that homophobic bullying is almost endemic in Britain’s schools. Almost two thirds of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying and three quarters of young gay people attending faith schools have experienced homophobic bullying. Even if gay pupils are not directly experiencing bullying, they are learning in an environment where homophobic language and comments are commonplace. 98% of young gay people hear the phrases “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” in school, and over 80% hear such comments often or frequently. 97% of pupils hear other insulting homophobic remarks, such as “poof”, “dyke”, “rug-muncher”, “queer” and “bender”.
But homophobic bullying doesn’t just affect young people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Homophobic bullying affects young people who are thought to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. In fact anyone who appears to be different in some way or who has gay friends, family, or parents who are gay can be the victim of homophobic bullying. And teachers, who may or may not be lesbian, gay or bisexual are adversely affected too. Homophobic bullying can be hard to identify because it may be going on in secret. Sometimes, pupils may not want to tell anyone about it in case teachers, staff or other adults assume they are gay. A recent study found that 60% of gay pupils never tell anyone (either at home or school) when they are being bullied.
There have however been a number of city wide and national initiatives from which to draw comfort. Birmingham City Council has signed up to Stonewall’s Education Champions programme which provides bespoke support and guidance to local authorities in tackling homophobia and homophobic bullying in their local schools.
The government has introduced new guidelines; Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying work in Schools which make specific recommendations around preventing
and responding to homophobic bullying and all schools now have a legal duty to ensure homophobic bullying is dealt with. Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, head teachers must identify and implement measures to promote good behaviour, respect for others, and self discipline amongst pupils, and to prevent all forms of bullying. This includes the prevention of homophobic bullying.
But more needs to be done. A survey by YouGov found that many teachers feel unsure about discussing issues relating to homosexuality in class and 94% of teachers had not received any training about homophobic bullying in schools. Some teachers cite fears of upsetting parents and faith communities by venturing into sensitive territory. Others say they need firm backing from school managers with fewer than half of those surveyed feeling that their headteacher gives any leadership in this area.
In Birmingham we have one secondary school headteacher who has quite obviously ‘come out’ and in doing so challenged homophobia in his school. Liam Nolan is the headteacher of Perry Beeches Secondary School in Great Barr, deemed “The Most Improved School in the UK 2008/2009”, once a ‘failing school’, now hugely successful under his “Outstanding Leadership” according to OFSTED. Nolan is, and always has been, an ‘out’ gay educator. He speaks openly to staff, students and the community about his sexuality and even credits this for his success.
“Look, in my opinion, to be successful in schools and to create the very best life chances for young people you must look them, and all key stakeholders, in the eye and be honest, upfront and truthful! To deny who I am, my sexuality, would not ring true and my students would see through it – they would never believe me in other, more fundamental education philosophies and the trust is gone! It is about respect! We are a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-able school where difference is celebrated. I am proud to be a gay man and proud that I represent successful gayness to my lesbian, gay, bisexual staff, students, parents and community. All stakeholders have the same voice here at Perry Beeches. We work hard to stamp out bullying of any sort and homophobia is not acceptable.”
Nolan has championed the Gay Birmingham Remembered Exhibition which is currently being displayed in the North Area Secondary Schools as a starting point for opening the debate around the acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
Unfortunately Perry Beeches is the exception and not the rule. Governing bodies, local authorities and government need to be much more proactive in supporting and celebrating LGBT pupils and teachers. We need to encourage not just tolerance, but acceptance and appreciation of gay people within and outside the school community. Providing safe and happy places to learn is essential to achieving school improvement, raising achievement and attendance, promoting equality and diversity, and ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our diverse school communities.
Steve Ball is a former Chair of Birmingham LGBT Community Trust