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Homophobic Bullying is Finally on the Education Agenda - but are Small Steps Enough?

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Way back in 2004 an Institute of Education research document found that "homophobia is evident in schools in a number of forms - from the use of inappropriate language, to serious physical violence". If this was so clearly evident way back in 2004, why is the issue only just creeping tentatively onto the national education agenda? The intervening years have seen a massive rise of the pejorative use of the word gay as an insult and a global rise in teen gay suicides.

Last week I co-presented a workshop at the National College for School Leaders annual conference. To be asked was a fantastic privilege, made all the more important because no previous NCSL conference has addressed homophobic bullying, an issue which is now clearly on the educational and political agendas via the Equality Act and the current OFSTED framework.

Around 40 school leaders attended the workshop which went well; Head Teacher Liam Nolan gave an inspiring speech that left no one in any doubt that tackling homophobia in school has been a key element in turning Perry Beeches School in Birmingham into the years "most improved school." I then spoke before giving attendees the chance to ask questions; and ask they did, thoughtful and supportive questions that showed they understood the moral and statutory obligations behind the work. Feedback was good and everyone survived the dreaded graveyard slot, and yet I was left with a slight sense of unease, of a job only partly done, and of it only being a very small step.

As is documented on my website, I was homophobically bullied at school, and a surprising number of gay and straight people now approach me to tell me how they were homophobically bullied at school, some quite recently and some many years ago.

Some of these people were bullied for actually being gay, but most because they just did not fit in with what was considered 'cool' or with established gender stereotypes. Often the schools failed to act, either because they did not want to, or because they did not know how to. Perhaps these schools were scared of adverse reaction from parents or people of faith? Whatever the case, a school that does nothing to pro-actively tackle homophobic bullying is failing staff, pupils and parents.

The people who contact me report these problems have been around in our schools for an unacceptably long time. What happens when the current media interest in homophobic bullying wanes? What happens when OFSTED change their framework again? There is massive change in our education system at present and this could conspire to push the emerging issue of homophobic bullying aside.

This key juncture in tackling homophobia in our schools could be lost in the current climate; add to this the existing, considerable barriers to even talking about homophobia and LGBT issues which currently exist in our schools (especially faith schools where the problem is statistically worse) and we as school leaders could be leaving the door open to yet more generations of the children in our care being bullied. Yet these children are being expected to succeed every day in many schools that are either unable or unwilling to help, acknowledge their family group or to provide a fully representative range of positive role models.

School leadership is a complex, challenging role and heads have their own agendas and strategies to address; but tackling homophobic bullying has been affecting generations of children and adults, gay and straight for too much too long; we must seize the moment, be brave and put our fears and in some cases our personal beliefs as school leaders aside for the needs of our children who surely must always come first.

It was indeed a privilege to speak at the NCSL conference and thanks to those who came, listened and supported; but perhaps more of the core audience could be reached by a whole conference presentation along the lines of 'How adopting a zero tolerance approach to homophobic bullying and language can aid productivity and raise standards'? The people who need to act on these messages are often the very same school leaders that will avoid a workshop with the word 'homophobic' in the title- these key messages must be delivered to as wide an audience as possible. The time for barriers built upon personal belief or fear is over; we have firm evidence, children are being hurt, lives are being damaged, and I fail to comprehend how anyone in education could not want to address that.

To NCSL and OFSTED I say thank you for putting homophobic bullying on the agenda, now let us all be courageous, make a difference and change the lives of countless children (and also of many teachers and parents) for the better. Let our schools lead the world on this vital issue. Schools that fully include and represent all pupils see standards rise - what better driver could we need?

Surely in 2012 it shouldn't require the UK equivalent of a Matthew Shepherd to convince for once and for all some of our school leaders that swift and robust action is vital for the sake of all our children.