Headteachers and Homophobic Bullying - It's Time To Face Up To The Fear

27/06/2012 10:27 BST | Updated 26/08/2012 10:12 BST

Recently I was speaking to a Newly Qualified Teacher, who expressed surprise that all schools are not tackling homophobic bullying; she asked me why some head-teachers are 'dragging their heels' over something that potentially affects all pupils.

Up to now there has been no strategic national approach to staff development around homophobia; but how effective can a school senior leadership team hope to be in taking a strategic lead in this complex area without any prior training? Added to this, the very real possibility that in some schools there exists prejudice, either against employing openly gay staff or against teaching about homophobia and one begins to get a sense of why so little work has been undertaken in many schools.

At the recent National School for School Leadership conference 'Seizing Success' in Birmingham, school leaders were asked to discuss the barriers to this work. It became apparent that colleagues were coming to the same conclusion that I had reached when I first spoke to colleagues who felt ill equipped to tackle homophobia. Their conclusion was also consistent with emails I receive from teachers and parents in schools where homophobia goes unchallenged.

Some headteachers and governors are actually frightened of undertaking this work.

What factors make some school leaders so fearful that they continue to condone a school ethos in which bullying, negative messages and pejorative language go unchallenged?

The messages I hear when leading training are that some school leaders:

a) Fear complaints from parents of faith

b) Fear the misconception that tackling homophobia means the 'promotion of a gay lifestyle choice'

c) Fear negative media attention

I must confess to holding some of these same fears prior to undertaking work in my own school. Press attention has indeed come our way, but this has been a positive experience for us.

A school leader who remains frozen into inaction by fear runs the risk of maintaining a status quo wherein children continue to be damaged.

A child feels fear when experiencing or witnessing homophobic bullying. School staff may be fearful of tackling homophobia and be led by a leadership team and governing body that are fearful of reactions from parents. The parents may in turn be fearful due to misconceptions as to the perceived nature of teaching and learning around homophobia.

School leadership requires courage, strength and determination; any school that firmly places the needs of pupils above all else will, from time to time, face challenges from parents and must accept this as part of their role. The reality is that once a school commits to undertake work around homophobia, provided it makes clear exactly what is being taught (not promoted, there is a clear difference) and is transparent, the majority of parents take no issue.

Schools must justify their position by making explicit statutory obligations and by referencing statistical data. Pupil voice data in my own primary school showed that 75% of pupils were hearing homophobic language on a daily basis, clearly a problem, which clearly needed sorting out for the sake of all pupils. In order to achieve this outcome training needed to be done with all staff and misconceptions addressed with staff, parents and governors in order to overcome the fear. The presence of a living breathing gay person was undoubtedly useful in this process.

There is sometimes an assumption amongst some school staff that parents or staff of faith will always be fearful of this work. Many professionals who hold religious affiliations are of course able to deliver quality teaching around the six main world religions without bias or making qualitative judgements. Religious teaching can provide a rich and exciting opportunity to reflect the culture and beliefs of a school community. T

To my knowledge however, no child has ever swapped their religious convictions due to an outstanding RE lesson. Logically teachers can educate as to the existence and achievements of LGBT people and the existence of homophobia without compromising their core beliefs. When teaching about the Buddhist Faith the fact that I am a non-Buddhist has no detrimental effect upon my ability to lead a successful lesson. We do not always have to believe in something to teach it well; in this way we put the needs of all children to be represented and fully informed first.

Teaching and learning around homophobia needs to be a key element of the school ethos, it is not something to embed solely in Personal Health and Social Education or Sex and Relationships Education. Schools do not tackle racism in one subject area, effective schools develop an ethos where everyone is represented, celebrated, and real life is reflected in the form of authentic adults and a range of real life diverse role models. Teaching about LGBT issues is most certainly not about teaching about gay sex, that is pure myth.

Two other 'fear factors' were raised by my NCSL colleagues, the first being the misconception that LGBT people, especially men, who work in schools, must be pedophiles. The fear of the gay as a pedophile still does exist in some quarters; it has been said directly to me during training. From experience, training with school staff that debunks this myth can result in a staff far more cohesive and at ease with itself, as old misconceptions and prejudices are assuaged. The bottom line is that schools have child protection procedures and guidelines to ensure that ALL pupils remain protected; it is no more a gay issue than it is a straight issue.

The second, was that by teaching pupils that LGBT people exist and contribute to our world and our economies, we will somehow encourage children to 'choose' a gay lifestyle. I knew I liked men at the age of four. To me this suggests that I was born gay and to me the notion that people choose a gay 'lifestyle' is to me frankly absurd. Describing myself as a four year old child attracted to men can sometimes make colleagues uncomfortable, but this is down to the tendency for adults to sexualise. I was not thinking about sex at the age of four, nor did have a concept of what being gay was, but the truth, however unpalatable it may be to some people, is that I knew at primary school that I was more attracted to men than to women. As a gay person moving through life one often gets asked 'when did you know you were gay?' Ask yourself (if you are heterosexual) 'when did you know you were heterosexual?' I am sure there will be many varied answers to this question, but the fact is that children have an emerging sense of self and identify, many from a very early age.

To move things forward for the sake of all our children, school leaders must overcome the myths, the fearful misconceptions and the downright lies that sometimes surround the tackling of homophobia in our schools, both for themselves and for their staff. No one is advocating teaching four years olds about gay sex; but some of the four year olds in our schools may have two mums or two dads, they may have gay friends or brothers or sisters and this may well leave them open to bullying and negativity from the outset.

OFSTED judges and praises schools for tackling homophobic bullying; what better justification (apart from the fact that children are being hurt) do school leaders need in getting training and overcoming any fear they may hold for once and for all?

As courageous school leaders it is time for us to conquer the fear for once and for all; every single unique and brilliant individual that comes through our doors must be able to head out into the big wide world knowing that they and their families have been accepted, represented and celebrated and that they have been empowered through our education system in order to fulfil their potential and hopefully to have a wonderful time on planet Earth.

The fear that a child who is singled out for homophobic bullying feels has the potential to damage them for life. However fearful school leaders may be, the needs of the pupils in our care must take precedence over our own doubts, fears and beliefs.

Surely this is why we became school leaders in the first place?