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Promoting Equal Opportunities in Education - Project Two: Guidance On Dealing With Homophobic Incidents: Phase 1 Report and Recommendations


6: Conclusions

Phase 1 research has provided evidence of the nature and extent of homophobia and homophobic incidents in Scottish schools from the perspectives of EA staff, school staff and young people. It has also gathered and presented information regarding staff confidence levels, general awareness of homophobic incidents and current practice in dealing with these incidents. As well as determining the current situation, the research has shown ways in which the situation could be improved through potential confidence building measures.

Schools are obliged to ensure that pupils are treated with respect and ensure that sexual orientation is not a barrier to participation ( HMIE, 2002). However, findings from the research carried out with young people currently or recently attending school strongly suggest that this is not the case in every school.

Few schools explicitly include the mention of sexual orientation, homophobia or homophobic bullying in their anti-bullying and equal opportunities policy documents. Race is the equalities strand mentioned more often due to legislative obligations. A number of EAs and schools felt that there was value in dealing with homophobia, sexual orientation and LGBT issues within a broader and more generic equalities framework which emphasises anti-discrimination and respect for all kinds of people. It was suggested that this approach would be useful in terms of anti-discriminatory policy documents, dealing with homophobic incidents, approaching these subjects with pupils and in training and awareness raising with EA and school staff.

This more general approach is valid provided that anti-homophobia and LGBT issues are dealt with thoroughly and on an equal basis with the other equalities strands within this broader framework. This research suggests that this is not currently the case and that LGBT issues are seen to be the newest and most difficult of the equalities strands. Findings show that anti-homophobia is not seen as a priority by many schools and that there are few expectations placed on schools in terms of dealing with homophobic incidents and engaging in anti-homophobia work. This marginalisation is partly related to the after effects of Section 28 and is also connected to the oversexualisation of LGBT issues: EAs and schools who expressed concern about the introduction of these issues into schools may be viewing them in terms of same-sex sexual activity alone rather than in terms of identity, anti-discrimination and citizenship.

Dealing specifically with the needs of an individual or a 'group' of individuals does not negate and is not mutually exclusive to notions of equality for all: if "treat[ing] everyone the same" involves treating all pupils as if they are heterosexual then this will mean that the needs of LGBT young people will remain unmet.

Almost half of all schools and EAs are aware of verbal homophobic bullying but very few are aware of physical homophobic bullying. Although the figures cannot be directly compared, awareness of homophobic bullying was extremely high amongst young people surveyed with 84% stating that they were aware of this occurring in their schools. Responses also showed that the bullying was more likely to contain an element of physical violence when the motivation was homophobic. As a number of EAs and schools stated, homophobic incidents might be occurring without their knowledge.

Schools and EAs reported high levels of confidence in dealing with homophobic incidents. Conversely, the young people surveyed who had reported homophobic bullying stated that they were not satisfied with the outcomes. For some respondents confidence came from the belief that a homophobic incident was the same as any other type of bullying incident. However, the research with young people identified a clear difference: rates of reporting were extremely low because young people were concerned about disclosure, 'coming out' and issues of confidentiality.

The young people surveyed and interviewed expressed high levels of cynicism and negativity in relation to school staff. Some of the young people who were experiencing or had experienced homophobic bullying had a huge lack of confidence in staff and this had an impact on rates of reporting. A number of young people directly linked this to school staff not understanding the issues facing LGBT young people and/or being homophobic themselves. This attitude, although extreme, has some support in the number of EA and school respondents and interviewees who pointed to the influence which personal attitudes and prejudices could have on ways in which homophobic incidents are addressed and whether LGBT issues were discussed in the classroom. These findings emphasise even further the need for greater awareness training and information for EA and school staff to emphasise the consequences of not engaging with these issues and not understanding the seriousness of homophobic bullying: the long list of damaging and distressing behaviours listed by the young people who were being homophobically bullied is ample illustration.

A number of suggestions were made by EA and school representatives about possible measures for increasing confidence amongst school staff. Suggestions were also made about potential ways in which to discuss anti-homophobia and LGBT issues with young people. One characteristic of all of these suggestions is the need for a number of flexible measures and approaches which can be adapted to suit a particular group of young people or the needs of teachers in a particular school. However, with the support of EAs, SMT and teachers, all might prove effective in raising awareness of the issues and building confidence.

A number of EA and school survey respondents and interviewees expressed concern over the 'right' age at which to introduce these issues into the classroom and in most subjects it is up to the teacher's discretion whether he or she discusses these issues. Primary school and early Secondary school pupils were portrayed by EA and school staff as being aware of other types of discrimination but ignorant of homophobia and issues of sexual orientation. However, simultaneously there was evidence to suggest that these same pupils are capable of behaving homophobically towards their peers, something which was supported by survey responses from 11 to 14 year olds who were experiencing homophobic bullying.

In addition, findings show that some young people may be aware of their sexual orientation far earlier than adults assume. 22% of survey responses came from young people aged between 11 and 14 who identified themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Questioning. This clear identification at an early age, along with the experience of homophobic bullying at an early age, calls into question the belief that all Primary and early Secondary age school pupils are unaware and 'innocent' of issues surrounding homophobia and sexual orientation and are therefore unprepared to engage in anti-homophobia work and the discussion of LGBT issues.

A greater level of awareness raising, information and open discussion is necessary in schools. This means that schools are able to fulfil their obligations to all pupils, reduce the likelihood of homophobia and homophobic incidents and ensure that LGBT young people experience a healthy, fulfilling and safe education.