An new initiative to help drive out homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in secondary schools was launched today in an East London school by Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson this morning, during Anti- Bullying Week.

The new project, announced by the Government today, seeks to understand fully how to reduce the prevalence and impact of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying among school-age children and young people. To kick start this programme of work, organisations are being invited to bid for funding to conduct a full review of all the available evidence and existing practices currently in place in schools to tackle this issue.

The contract offered is worth between £25,000 and £50,000. It reads that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport wishes to “improve our understanding about how best to reduce homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools and among children and young people of school age. In particular, we are keen to better understand what is currently being done to tackle this type of bullying and how effective this is.”

PinkNews joined Ms Swinson on a visit to the Bridge Academy in Hackney where the minister spoke to 11 and 12-year-olds who have recently joined the school as well as 15 and 16-year-olds who are preparing to sit their GCSEs. There she learnt about the school’s anti-homophobia campaigns, in particular those that are supported by the bank UBS and its LGBT staff network.

Speaking to PinkNews, Ms Swinson said: “I think if we had the experience that the children seem to be having at this school then we wouldn’t be seeing the worrying statistics from Stonewall and others about the prevalence of homophobic bullying. Even here these children are aware of ‘gay’ being used as a term of abuse, and they’ve heard that, even though they have a very clear culture where bulling is not tolerated, and they have got a very clear understanding of what they should do to help others who are experiencing it, or where to go if there is a problem.

“So that is the worrying fact, basically; if you look at those statistics that more than half of LGBT pupils are experiencing homophobic bullying, and larger percentages are aware of ‘gay’ being used as a term of abuse, and seeing homophobic bullying going on. Also, worryingly only three in ten think their schools actually have got proper processes and are dealing with it properly.

“So that is the gap we are trying to bridge really, and so the first step is to make sure we gather the evidence. We have got really good starting points with some of the survey data that organisations like Stonewall have done. Then we will do a very thorough review of that literature, and build on that with some interventions that we can then evaluate, and work out what is most effective.

“There are some great programmes but it’s really good to know what are the things that really help to change people’s attitudes. In the discussions with young people interested in exploring, one of the pupils was saying when she was in year 7 and 8, she said ‘I didn’t know any better and I used the word gay quite a lot in that way’, but then I think she said it was a poster she had seen which suddenly just made her think quite differently. So I think we need to find out when people have changed their behaviour, what has been the catalyst, what has suddenly made them think ‘maybe that’s not how I want to behave’, because if we can understand that better, then we can invest in trying to have programmes that really do tackle the issue, and work with schools up and down the country, some of those like Bridge Academy, who obviously are very up on all those things, and area really keen to address it. And with perhaps others where either they have some more complacency because perhaps they think they are doing everything well, but the reality and the experience of their pupils might be different. Or those where there is perhaps a bit more reticence to recognising the problem.”

Speaking on equal marriage in Scotland, which passed its first stage debate last night, the Minister said: “Obvious as a Scot, I’m delighted about that!

“I think this is important, yes we have civil partnerships, but symbolically it has been different and separate to marriage as an institution, and of course you feel like it is a marriage, and basically it’s the same kind of love, but of course, technically in the eyes of the state it has been a separate category, and that has reinforced this sense of otherness, and that it is somehow not equal, so I think that change is important, and the profile that has been given to that.

“It becomes something that people grow up with, and they just understand – some people are gay. What’s the big deal?”

Bennie Kara, Head of English at the school said: “Quite often we put in things that challenge students, to provoke a reaction and force them to make choices about language. What I love about this borough is that Hackney puts a lot of time and effort into helping students moderate their language on this issue- it’s not about changing their beliefs, some of them are from very religious backgrounds. Instead it’s about understanding context and to be emphatetic. The days that we run around this issue allow our students to see being gay as being something positive, not like we sometimes see in the press.”

Dean Williams, Co-chair of the UBS Pride Network told PinkNews: “It was great to see students who had been on the most recent Drop Down Day tell the minister that they had enjoyed the day, explain what they had learned and how their behaviour had changed as a result. Jo Swinson was interested in UBS’s involvement in the Drop Down Days and in how we had developed the anti-homophobic bullying day with Stonewall and can link the day to diversity and inclusion being important to the workplace.”

The announcement follows the pledge in July that the Church of England will introduce a campaign to fight homophobic bullying in its schools, and Stonewall has launched a new campaign, to tackle the use of homophobic language in schools using new posters and guidance to address the misuse of the word ‘gay’.

Sue Minto, Head of ChildLine, said: “Homophobic bullying is becoming a huge problem with children contacting ChildLine to say they have been driven to despair, developing eating disorders, harming themselves and even contemplating suicide. Over the last three years the number of children seeking help from the 24-hour, confidential service has almost doubled. In the last 12 months alone counsellors have dealt with 800 cases.

“Some of those who call say they have had no support from teachers, leaving them with no option but to find another school where they feel safe from the bullies.

“We hope the government’s latest plans will give victims protection, allowing them to enjoy school and fulfil their potential.”