Comment: It’s time to put vulnerable people ahead of religious interests, Mr Gove
There is something rather cringeworthy about the government’s determination to drive homophobia out of sport. It’s welcome, but an easy target for a government that wants easy-fixes rather than tackling the underlying causes.
Things aren’t going nearly as fast as it seems, and ministers are fuming that just ten percent of league clubs have signed up to the Football v Homophobia initiative. But why the surprise? The state of football is just a reflection of the prejudice that runs thick and unchecked through all strands of society. If the government were really serious about stamping out homophobia on the pitch and in the stands, it would deal with it in the classroom and the playground.
For at least five years, no decision-maker in education could fail to be aware of the epidemic proportions of homophobic bullying in UK schools. The prevalence of violence and abuse, as evidenced by a string of reports, including Stonewall’s school report (PDF), not to mention the deaths of Jonathan Reynolds and Dominic Crouch, show that the school system is not just making life intolerable for LGBT people, it is breeding a new generation of hate.
Anyone with the slightest conscience would be treating this as a national crisis, and be doing their utmost to make schools as accepting and inclusive as possible. Alas, with Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, we have a minister who caves in to hardline religious lobby groups on teaching of sex and relationships, and who appears to claim that equality legislation does not extend to school curricula.
To understand the extent of Gove’s contempt for LGBT pupils with such a statement, one must understand the context: a response to TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, who wanted to know why a pamphlet, which claimed that gay children were the result of poor parenting and sexual abuse, was being touted to children in Catholic Schools across Lancashire. This is of course Freudian pseudoscientific babble that has been rejected outright by every medical institution in the West. On that basis alone, there is no reason for children to be encouraged to even consider this material in the first place. How this may affect the self-esteem of LGBT pupils, one can only imagine. It is not clarifications from the minister we should be asking for: we should be expecting legal proceedings against schools for peddling this nonsense. For Gove, it seems, anything goes.
Meanwhile we are kindly reminded by legal expert Adam Wagner on Human Rights Blog, that Gove’s quoted assertion is not true. While the law says it is possible to teach all perspectives of sexuality, in a discussion on religious attitudes, they can’t be presented as if they are true, without being at least subject to some investigation. Very well, but teaching ‘all sides of the argument’ is open to abuse unless schools are compelled to teach children where the balance in the argument lies.
The Church of England, for instance, with a third of the nation’s primary schools under its control, claims it will ensure all pupils in its schools will be given the full range of Christian views on the matter of sexual orientation. On the C of E website, we find this:
“The Anglican Church’s traditional teaching is that homosexual practice (as distinct from orientation) ‘falls short of the ideal’ expression of sexual love, which should be set within the framework of a faithful marriage. However, this subject is widely debated within the Church. At the appropriate stage within the RE or sex education curriculum, all students, in all schools, should have the opportunity to examine the full range of views, including the different Christian views, and to develop their own considered position.”
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However, its statement already presupposes a distinction between ‘practice’ and ‘orientation’, as if a relationship and all the emotions and tenderness that go with it can be devalued to a mechanical act. The notion that being gay is a ‘disorder’ and calls for a loveless life of celibacy, is a belief we actively need to protect people from, just like we would never dream of encouraging ethnic minority children to consider all possible views on race relations or immigration, including those of the National Front. The experiences of pupils at the Jewish school JFS who were reportedly traumatised after viewing a presentation featuring the work of an ‘ex-gay’ group, are a case in point.
We don’t teach ‘all views’ in any case: Michael Gove expressly prohibited this in the case of Evolution for instance because science overwhelmingly says it happened, contrary to what some religious lobbyists and school academy trustees believe. So why the double standards? For any child to be given the impression that a debate exists about the morality of same-sex relationships is ruinous to self-esteem and will only perpetuate the prejudice that is not only rife in schools, but society at large also.
There is, of course, a better way. A small number of schools are making schools safer by encouraging a culture in which everyone is accepted and celebrated for their differences. Raising understanding of different family types and gender differences starts at primary school. Campaigners such as Schools OUT, Stonewall and the National Union of Teachers are offering support for staff who are LGBT or developing policies and age-appropriate curricula. One of the most inspiring examples is Stoke Newington School. As well as receiving an outstanding safety grade (PDF) in the last inspection, the school has also seen a big improvement in GCSE and A-Level marks and is now oversubscribed. Safe, inclusive schools are places where children achieve their potential.
Sadly, a great proportion of schools are unwilling and unable to adopt such enlightened policies. The current government has slashed funding for promoting anti-bullying measures, diverting funds for traditional ‘core’ subjects only. This is disappointing as even if schools are willing, the expertise is lacking. According to a Sheffield Hallam University study, a major barrier to countering anti-LGBT prejudice is that teachers have insufficient training, confidence, understanding or guidance to tackle homophobic bullying in the first place. Some teachers are too afraid to bring up the subject of homophobia or transphobia, for fear of a backlash from pupils and parents. But the necessary subject-specific training is not available, because personal, social and health education is non-statutory.
Even schools that succeed in tackling prejudice are undermined by the right of parents to opt out of sex education. Some schools become victims of nasty campaigns by hard-line lobby groups and the media who falsely claim that seven year-olds are taught about sex, when in fact they are simply being made aware of different types of families. Last November, for example, Grenoside Community school near Sheffield received threats from the BNP after the Daily Mail seethed against its plans ‘to teach homosexuality to six year-olds’. The Church of Scotland has similarly enraged the Christian Institute for organising a transgender storytelling event.
However, there is a ray of hope: Ofsted, for the first time, will rigorously grade schools on their record of creating a safe, inclusive, accepting environment for LGBT people. This goes beyond simply evaluating levels of bullying and harassment, but will include detailed, confidential questionnaires and interviews with staff, students and parents. Schools will receive unsatisfactory grades overall if a significant minority of pupils show lack of respect and intolerance, even if it is directed towards just one minority group. The initiative by Ofsted will almost certainly put it at loggerheads with than a few schools, who have good reason to not be questioned too deeply on their inclusivity policies.
Some schools will claim, of course, that they condemn all homophobia and that they specifically mention it in the school anti-bullying policy. Dominic Crouch’s school did that, yet its pupils still thought it fun to taunt him about supposedly kissing a classmate until the day he died. To be perceived as gay, in other words, is to be the butt of jokes. Homophobic bullying is perpetuated because the victims suffer in silence, unable to seek help because they are deterred from coming out in the first place.
The Times Educational Supplement last year revealed that homophobic and transphobic attitudes and language in classrooms and playgrounds have changed little. Well, the LGBT community has had enough of this, Mr. Gove. It is time for serious action. How many more beatings, death threats and suicide attempts will it take for you to realise that nothing less than creating a culture of inclusiveness is acceptable? The very least we should expect is the introduction compulsory evidence-based sex and relationships education for all and it’s high time your department put the well-being of vulnerable students above dangerous dogma and ideology.