The newly-appointed minister for Children, Kevin Brennan, has committed the government to working with Stonewall to eradicate homophobic bullying from British schools.
Speaking at the gay equality organisation’s Education for All conference in London, Mr Brennan said the new Department for Children, Schools and Families would focus on the security, well being and success of children in all aspects of their life, not just academic achievement, and that stopping bullying in all forms was a key part of that mission.
“Bullying is not simply a part of growing up,” he said.
“Shame, indignity and humiliation at school is something that no young person should have to put up with.
“I am determined to stamp out bullying in all its forms – from the old menace of racism to the recent emergence of cyber-bullying.”
The minister stressed that faith schools will be compelled to take action against homophobia as well as secular institutions and he set out two approaches to tackling the problem:
“The first is effective intervention. Part of the reason for the apparent inertia and inaction is that often, teachers are unsure what to do.
“We need to make sure that every teacher has the knowledge, skills and confidence to deal with incidents of homophobic bullying. To challenge intolerance and disrespect in whatever form it rears its ugly head.”
Mr Brennan said that schools will be issued with new guidance, telling them to specifically address homophobic bullying in their policies.
“Schools need to have proper systems in place enabling pupils to report homophobic bullying,” he said.
“Even more importantly, policy and good intentions must be absolutely reflected in practice, with sanctions being firmly and consistently applied.”
The minister said better pastoral care from teachers was vital, and that going beyond just having a ‘zero tolerance’ approach was needed:
“Children and young people are taught about the importance of equality and diversity in ways that are appropriate to their age.
“Helping them develop the values of respect and understanding which help shape a progressive and inclusive society. Parents too need to be involved.”
Delegates to the conference wanted to know why only guidance was being issued to schools, instead of stronger action.
Others stressed the need for better teacher training around homophobia and homosexuality.
Mr Brennan told PinkNews.co.uk:
“The guidance is strong, it has got the full force of the government behind it.
“We are committed to making sure that every school implements the guidance.
“We don’t like to simply put bureaucratic requirements on schools without the evidence that that is needed so at this stage it remains guidance. We will be monitoring its implementation.”
Mr Brennan is the MP for Cardiff West. He was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families by Gordon Brown last week.
The full text of his speech to today’s Stonewall Education for All conference is reproduced below:
I am delighted to be here in my new capacity as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families. Our previous Secretary of State was an extremely powerful advocate for lesbian and gay rights, and both Ed Balls and I share his passionate commitment to tackling the many forms of discrimination – both overt and covert, direct and indirect – which still blight our society.
The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families will sharpen our focus on young people – not just their attainment in school, but their security, wellbeing, and potential to succeed in all aspects of their life.
I am pleased to talk with you this morning about the problem of homophobic bullying in schools, and what we are doing to tackle this.
I am privileged and proud to be part of a government which is committed to real progress and genuine equality for all. We aren’t a government which pays lip service to equality and then shies away from action.
We’ve repealed Clause 28 and introduced an equal age of consent. Made discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal at work and at school. Introduced civil partnerships and equal adoption rights.
All helping to correct the unjustifiable anomalies which implied that the way in which lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women live their lives is somehow less valid or less acceptable than heterosexual life.
Of course, we have a long way to go. Legislation is obviously essential to setting the framework, but it is the bluntest of instruments.
Just as it took several years for racial equality laws to feed into real culture change where racist language became unacceptable – so now we need to achieve the same with homophobic language.
Our objective is nothing less than a fully inclusive society. Where all minority groups are valued and respected, and every individual is able to simply be who they are.
It’s clear that we aren’t there yet.
Just one example is the casual use of homophobic language by mainstream radio DJs. This is too often seen as harmless banter instead of the offensive insult that it really represents.
At the moment, those societal attitudes are too often reflected in schools. Stonewall’s recent publication, the “School Report” brought some truly shocking statistics to national attention.
The survey showed that insulting homophobic remarks are thrown around as part of every day conversation and overheard by almost every school child.
What this means is that young gay people – or those with gay friends and relatives – can find their time at school made anything from uncomfortable to unhappy to downright threatening.
Many turn in on themselves, becoming silent and withdrawn. Others resort to extreme measures to block the pain – from truancy to substance misuse to self-harm.
To ignore this problem is to collude in it. The blind eye to casual name-calling, looking the other way because it is the easy option, is simply intolerable.
Not only because it is disrespectful and hurtful, but because it is very often is the precursor to more violent action. And some adults compound the problem with their own outdated attitudes to homophobia.
We have a clear and urgent obligation to address this issue, to prevent more young lives being made miserable through malice and ignorance.
As minister responsible for bullying, the eradication of discrimination amongst our young people is right at the top of my list of priorities.
Bullying is not simply a part of growing up. Shame, indignity and humiliation at school is something that no young person should have to put up with.
I am determined to stamp out bullying in all its forms – from the old menace of racism to the recent emergence of cyberbullying.
And there is no doubt that with concerted effort, this is possible. All of civilised society now views racist language and bullying as absolutely abhorrent.
The public revulsion at Shilpa Shetty’s treatment in the Big Brother house, or the disgust at the abuse directed at black England players in Serbia recently, really show the progress we have made.
Thinking back only twenty years, I think that protest would have been far more muted.
We need to create a culture where homophobic bullying is as unthinkable as racist bullying. That culture must be shared across our whole society, but I believe that schools are the right place to start.
Because it’s in school that young people learn to challenge prejudice, confront injustice and stand up for what is right. The values, attitudes and beliefs that they acquire at school are those they will take into adulthood.
There are two approaches that we need to take.
The first is effective intervention. Part of the reason for the apparent inertia and inaction is that often, teachers are unsure what to do.
We need to make sure that every teacher has the knowledge, skills and confidence to deal with incidents of homophobic bullying. To challenge intolerance and disrespect in whatever form it rears its ugly head.
Schools need to specifically address the issue in their bullying policies – making it clear that homophobic bullying, harassment and language is deplorable and simply will not be tolerated.
Schools need to have proper systems in place enabling pupils to report homophobic bullying. Even more importantly, policy and good intentions must be absolutely reflected in practice, with sanctions being firmly and consistently applied.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to prevent such incidents occurring – going further than a simple zero-tolerance approach to homophobic bullying.
It means that the curriculum must reflect our inclusive vision of society.
So children and young people are taught about the importance of equality and diversity in ways that are appropriate to their age. Helping them develop the values of respect and understanding which help shape a progressive and inclusive society. Parents too need to be involved.
We already have strong vehicles for delivering this – the incredibly effective Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning Programme, as well as citizenship and Personal Social and Health Education lessons.
We also need to offer better pastoral care for young people. So that teachers can provide appropriate support and advice for young people who may be uncertain about their sexuality, or are experiencing problems at home, or who simply need a sympathetic ear.
The guidance which is being produced by Stonewall and Education Action Challenging Homophobia will be invaluable in helping schools and teachers to achieve these ends: in effective intervention; in prevention, and in developing a culture which is more supportive for lesbian and gay pupils.
It will set out a series of principles, but will go far beyond simply showing how to define and identify homophobic bullying. It will also help teachers understand how to actively respond.
Above all, it will stress the need for a positive, inclusive school environment which recognises and celebrates difference in all its forms, and where good intentions and rigorous policies are reflected in classroom practice.
But this guidance will not expect schools to have all the answers. It will also stress the value of positive role models from both inside and outside school, and identify useful sources of outside expertise – like Stonewall itself.
This guidance will form part of a comprehensive package looking at all the different manifestations of bullying – offering teachers practical strategies without overwhelming them with mountains of paper.
It will apply to all schools – including faith schools. And I hope it will be embraced by all schools, because the human cost of failing to address this problem is enormous – as the “School Report” makes clear.
In coming up with practical strategies to address homophobic bullying, your conference is making a further important contribution to this debate.
I firmly believe that one day, the homophobic language which is all too common today will become as taboo as the casual racism of the 1970s is today.
And if we work together, I believe that day will be in the not too distant future.
I wholeheartedly endorse the objectives of your conference and I wish you a very successful day. Thank you very much.