Schools and youth workers struggle to tackle homophobic bullying

By Janaki Mahadevan

| 16 November 2011

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students have described how schools are not effectively tackling homophobic bullying and in some cases are perpetuating a hostile culture where students feel isolated.

PE: some students said they were asked to get changed separately from their peers for lessons. Image: Phil Adams

A report by Sheffield Hallam University, Tackling Homophobia and Transphobia In Settings Supporting Young People, examined how LGBT issues are tackled in school and youth work settings in South Yorkshire.

A questionnaire and interviews with young people revealed that many felt professionals did not properly understand the issue, with staff in some settings using homophobic language themselves. Some students also reported school policies that isolated LGBT young people, such as asking them to get changed separately from their peers for PE lessons.

The research found that LGBT young people appeared to expect, or even accept, the bullying they experienced and also reported mental health problems impacted on school attainment and attendance.

One youth worker said: "The impact that being gay and being out and being bullied has on young people’s mental health is colossal. The amount of mental health issues in that group that we know about is immense, the ones we don’t know about make me shudder."

The questionnaire received 146 responses from young people aged 13 to 21, while eight group discussions in school and youth work settings sought the views of 65 young people aged 11 to 20. A further nine interviews took place with teachers and youth workers.

The report found there was only a "patchy inclusion of LGBT matters" within schools. The subject was most likely to be addressed in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education lessons.

Researchers reported that the contrast between the "invisibility within formal curriculum and the visibility of homosexuality within informal contexts was stark". Some staff reported that LGBT issues were only of interest to LGBT young people and therefore relevance was limited.

Staff interviewed said barriers to delivering education about LGBT issues in school included a lack of priority with some saying there were "more important things" on the agenda. Others described embarrassment about talking about sex more generally, while some had anxieties about "turning" young people gay by educating them about same sex relationships. Others also feared backlashes from religious community leaders and parents. A gap in expertise and confidence was also cited as a barrier to supporting students to learn about LGBT issues.

Staff stressed the importance of management support for those working to raise awareness of sexuality issues in school and youth work settings.

Eleanor Formby, lead researcher from the Centre for Education and Inclusion Research at Sheffield Hallam, said the report indicated that incidents such as separate changing rooms could lead to homophobia becoming "normalised" by the time youngsters leave school.

"I don’t think telling pupils who have 'come out' to get changed separately is official policy, but I fear that it may be routine practice in some schools and could lead to homophobia being normalised," she said.

"Staff often want to be able to tackle issues dealing with sexuality, but are often unaware of or unable to access training or resources that are on offer so they can deal with these issues appropriately and effectively."

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