Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Sad Reality: Homophobia in British Schools

A few weeks ago in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) Magazine, there was a piece by Suran Dickson about her personal ‘mission’ to combat prejudice in schools. Suran is founder and Chief Executive of Diversity Role Models - an organisation which promotes positive LGBT role models in the classroom.

Due to our shared interest in education and our respective experiences of working in the classroom and with school-aged children, we were both engaged by Suran’s article and so decided to jointly write this post expressing our delight at what Suran is doing and adding some of our own thoughts.

One of the most powerful messages in the article – and one with which we can both sympathise - was how challenging Suran has found her quest. Anybody thinking that promoting equality in the so-called ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ education system is easy can think again - you have to be pretty tough. Our classrooms are full of latent homophobic attitudes. Perhaps most noticeably, the use of the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory sense is endemic amongst students in our secondary schools; responding to a poll of lesbian, gay and bisexual students by Stonewall in 2007, 98% said the word "gay" was used as a synonym for "rubbish".

Whilst there are notable examples of many teachers out there who do stand up against this inequality and intimidation in their classes, there are many who don’t. For us, what is most concerning is the fact that the expression of homophobia is in many instances completely ignored by teaching staff, leading to a culture in which homophobia is tolerated rather than unambiguously condemned. For example, teachers may brush off use of the word ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ in an inappropriate context as slang or some sort of linguistic evolution. They may justify their lack of intervention on the grounds that such language isn’t ‘homophobia’ but is instead simply ‘modern’ language. They are wrong. This is homophobia and isn’t being taken seriously by enough people; whilst great progress has been made in tackling racism in our schools in recent years - by raising awareness of the issue across the curriculum - sadly the issue of homophobia has until very recently been ignored.

The picture is not however entirely bleak; encouragingly, the Coalition has made tackling homophobia in schools a political priority. However, the Government must not simply target those typically troubled inner-city comprehensives, whose poor classroom discipline and widespread bullying is frequently criticised in the media. Homophobia is asymptomatic. There is no pattern in who does it or why - it is just as prominent in the flashy ‘progressive’ schools higher in the league tables. Homophobia, like homosexuality, is classless and sadly, entrenched. The scale of the problem must be confronted before it can be addressed.

In many instances there are national solutions to these issues. For example, the Government needs to look at changes to the way teachers are given guidelines on tolerance. Diversity is a watery part of teacher training and the attitude of many seems to be that ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ in the classroom are simply boxes to be ticked, something to prove when Ofsted come calling rather than a value that is actively promoted cross-curriculum. A pro-equality ethic is not part of some bizarre political agenda, it is something that simply ought to come naturally to our teachers. That can only happen when we stop treating the liberalisation of the curriculum as a partisan target or single issue but as a part of a push for a more tolerant society.

Aaron was working in a school in Lancashire and had a small group of children outside doing some maths challenges. I can’t remember how it came about but one of the children asked if I was married. When I replied that I wasn’t, he asked if I would want a wife. One little girl in the group immediately corrected him. “He could have a husband,” she said thoughtfully. “He might marry a man. You can get married to boys if you’re a boy.” The little boy, quite seriously, turned to her and replied; “Yeah but that would make him gay.”
I was lost in all this and didn’t need to say anything because at once, a third child entered the conversation and replied; “Yeah and that’s ok.” To which the first boy replied; “Yeah, I know it is. I was just asking if he wants to get married.”

Now if only all children had that attitude! Perhaps our teachers could learn quite a bit about the best way to have a frank and honest dialogue about sexuality from them.

- Aaron Spence & Andrew Bennison are both aspiring-teachers studying History at Lancaster & Oxford Universities respectively. Aaron tweets at @Aaronlspence & Andrew at @Andrew_Bennison.

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