Homophobic bullying must be tackled by Labour’s local leaders

16th July, 2012 5:30 pm

From civil partnerships to adoption rights for same-sex couples, the Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown delivered legal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people on virtually every front. It is a testament to that political leadership, and the resulting cultural change that has followed, that a Conservative Prime Minister has signalled his intention to deliver equal marriage. But the publication last week of a major report into the experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools lays bare the worrying extent of homophobic bullying in our education system and the serious consequences that follow.

The University of Cambridge conducted a national survey of more than 1,600 lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in secondary schools and colleges across Britain. The findings, published in The School Report by Stonewall, were shocking. More than half reported they had experienced homophobic bullying and almost all hear homophobic language like ‘that’s gay’ and ‘you’re so gay’. Most distressingly of all, almost one in four gay young people have tried to take their own life at some point and more than half had deliberately harmed themselves by cutting or burning themselves.

When so many gay young people are driven to such drastic action in such large numbers the case for a strong clampdown on homophobic bullying by schools is unanswerable. Yet too many teachers are either content to ignore the problem or are simply ill-equipped to deal with it. Three in five lesbian, bisexual and gay young people who experience bullying say that teachers who never witness the bullying fail to intervene. Worryingly, only half reported that their schools say that homophobic bullying is wrong, even fewer in faith schools at 37%.

If head teachers and school governors are unprepared to show clear leadership to staff, how can they guarantee a classroom environment in which every young person can realise every ounce of their potential? While the political debate rages about how best to raise educational standards, the talent of so many gay young people is being wasted due to the misery that so many are having to endure on a daily basis. Three in five gay pupils report that their school work has suffered as a result of homophobic bullying. One in three are forced change their future educational plans. This is talent that Britain can ill afford to waste.

Amidst this bleak picture, there are reasons for optimism. In no small part thanks to the leadership of the last government – the first to publish guidance on tackling homophobic bullying in schools – the proportion of gay pupils experiencing homophobic bullying has fallen during the past five years from 65% to 55%. The number of schools explicitly stating that homophobic bullying is wrong has doubled. And where schools and local authorities are working with Stonewall to take action, they are making progress further and faster than the rest.

Each of us has a role to play to ensure that the progress being made by some schools is replicated by all schools for the benefit of all pupils. Labour councillors should ensure that all schools within their local authority are addressing homophobic bullying and join leading Labour councils like Birmingham City Council, Sheffield City Council and the London Borough of Camden, who recently made the top 10 in Stonewall’s Education Equality Index. School governors should ensure that their governing body is providing leadership to staff and assurance that they will be supported and trained in implementing a tough behaviour code. And as individuals, we should ensure that homophobic language – which directly impacts on levels of bullying – is not written off as ‘harmless banter’ but challenged as we would challenge racist abuse.

Addressing Stonewall’s Education for All conference held in London last week, Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: ‘there is no room for complacency and it is incumbent upon us all to challenge homophobic bullying and discrimination wherever it rears its head.’ The role of progressives in tackling homophobia must extend beyond scrutiny in Parliament to strong leadership in our communities. Only then will Britain secure a legacy of lasting cultural change worthy of Labour’s record of delivering equal legal rights in government.

Wes Streeting is Head of Education at Stonewall and Deputy Leader of the Labour Group in the London Borough of Redbridge. If you’re a teacher, school governor or local councillor and would like to support the Education for All campaign to challenge homophobia in schools, e-mail Wes

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