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Homophobic Bullying (Schools)

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2012

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, for what I think is the first time. Why do we need a debate on homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools? Is it not the case that any form of bullying is bad and should be tackled? I agree with that up to a point. Bullying is not a new phenomenon. It has always been the case that some children are cruel and will pick on others because they are perceived to be different in some way. Perhaps they are not wearing trendy clothes; they wear glasses; they are overweight; they have acne—there are all sorts of reasons. Schools should have in place effective anti-bullying policies, both to foster a general culture of respect, so that the likelihood of bullying is diminished in the first place, and to be able to nip bullying in the bud quickly when it does take place. That is certainly true, but I want to demonstrate today why I believe that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying that needs to be tackled.

Research commissioned by Stonewall in 2009 and conducted by YouGov found that 90% of secondary school teachers and 40% of primary school teachers had regularly witnessed homophobic bullying in schools. An earlier survey of young gay people found that 65% had been bullied themselves and 98% were aware of homophobic language being used. Although we do not yet have the figures, Stonewall is carrying out a major research programme and will publish an updated set of figures in the next few weeks. That will demonstrate—I had a meeting with Stonewall last week—that the problem very much remains.

There is clearly a problem to be tackled, but statistics do not convey the human cost of bullying. I want to draw attention to the case of the Crouch family, which has been covered in the press in the past few months and certainly does show the human cost of bullying. Dominic Crouch was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Gloucestershire. During a school trip in 2010, he played a game of spin the bottle with his classmates. As a forfeit, he had to kiss another boy. That event was videoed on a mobile phone and quickly spread virally round the school. Dominic suffered severe taunting for being gay. It is not actually known whether he was gay, but the intensity of the bullying was so great that Dominic committed suicide by jumping off a tall building. His father, Roger, commendably and bravely, spoke up publicly about his son’s suicide, to help to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage people to take action. However, Roger’s grief was so intense that he could not cope and he took his own life last November. Those two lives were lost utterly needlessly.

Sadly, the Crouch family’s story is not an isolated case. Last year in my area of Milton Keynes, there were four teenage suicides. Of those, three were young gay men. Does that not tell us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed?

Homophobic bullying can leave very deep emotional scars that can take a long time to heal and sometimes will never heal. I know that from personal experience. At school, I knew that I was gay, but I did not dare admit it, either to myself or to others. It was inconceivable for me to do that as a teenager growing up in the west of Scotland in the mid-1980s. Indeed, with you, Mr Robertson, in the Chair, I will say that it was easier for me to admit that I was a Tory in Glasgow than it was to come clean about my sexual orientation.

I do not want to over-egg things. I was not physically bullied and the verbal bullying that I experienced was very mild and short-lived, but I was perceived to be different and it left deep scars. It was enough to make me feel isolated and introverted, and it took me a very long time to overcome. It is clear from the research that Stonewall and others have done that those consequences of bullying can severely impair a young person’s academic and social development. Further evidence shows that, where there is a culture of bullying in schools and particularly homophobic bullying, it drags down the performance of the class and the school as a whole, so it is not just those who are bullied who suffer; it is their classmates as well.

Social attitudes have changed enormously in the two decades or so since I was at school. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times. However, it is wrong to think that homophobia does not exist among young people. I challenge hon. Members to read some of the horrifying stories in the recent special youth edition of Attitude magazine. Some pretty appalling things have gone on and are going on in classrooms in our schools today.

In preparing for this speech, I took the time to speak to some of the pupils in my constituency to find out what their experience of bullying in schools was. I found some pretty surprising and appalling things. One girl told me that she was doing a media studies class and part of the research involved looking at the portrayal of homosexuality in the media. The class had to view an episode of, I think, “EastEnders” in which two men were kissing. The phrase “dirty faggot” was shouted out in the classroom and clearly heard by the teacher, but the teacher did nothing about it. Such incidents take place; they are happening today. The girl also told me that a Facebook page was set up so that pupils at the school who were thought to be gay could be outed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on talking so personally about this issue. Bullying, in whatever form, is a terrifying experience for those who suffer it. Sadly, one of my friends committed suicide because of bullying, although it was not homophobic bullying, and that had a profound effect on me personally. My hon. Friend mentions Facebook, and there is also Twitter. In this age of modern technology, there seems to be no escape for some bullying victims, because even when they go home, whether through the mobile phone in their pocket or the laptop in their bedroom, the bullies are ever present. Does my hon. Friend think that that is another aspect of the issue that needs serious consideration?

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an important point. Cyber-bullying is very much with us. It takes place in many different forms. It extends the boundaries and the times of the school, as my hon. Friend said, so that pupils feel victimised in their own homes and not just when they are within the school gates. From what I have been able to research, I do not think that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying in cyberspace—it is just another vehicle through which homophobia and homophobic bullying can take place—but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it needs to be part of our response to the problem.

What can we do to tackle this important problem? The Government have made a good start. It was very good that the schools White Paper included a specific reference to preventing and tackling homophobic bullying in schools. I am aware that new anti-bullying guidance has been produced for schools to use. I am glad that within the Ofsted inspection framework is the expectation that schools should create a safe learning environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. I certainly applaud all those initiatives, but more needs to be done.

For all the toolkits available, research by Stonewall found that the vast majority of teachers want to combat homophobic bullying but do not feel that they have the appropriate training or support. If we isolate only one thing that needs to be done—many more things need to be done—it is to improve training for teachers, so that they have the skills to prevent bullying from happening in the first place and to tackle it when it does.

I apologise for arriving late, but I have been attacking the Church of England on a very similar issue.

An organisation called Diversity Role Models, which plays an important role in London schools, would like to be able to play a role more widely around the country. It provides role models to go into schools who are expert at talking about such issues. In one class, 95% of the kids at the beginning of a session said that they would never have a gay or lesbian friend, but by the end, only 20% said that they would not have one. That is the kind of difference that we need to make, is it not?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; indeed, he has anticipated my mentioning Diversity Role Models. I spoke to it yesterday and it sent me some reports about its work. I agree that it performs an excellent role by going into schools, as does Stonewall.

Sometimes, it is not that schools do not want to tackle such bullying, but that they do not perceive it as an issue that they have to deal with. Part of my reason for initiating the debate today is to put on record that there is a problem that should be tackled. Every school will have gay pupils who need support. I want schools to realise that there is help from the Government and organisations such as Stonewall and Diversity Role Models to assist them in tackling the problem.

The record in schools is mixed. There are some very good schools, with very effective policies. The evidence shows that when schools have good policies in place, instances of bullying drop dramatically, so it is not some airy-fairy idea that would be nice, but something that shows tangible results. I do not have a preconceived idea of how this should be done, but we need to do more to share best practice from the schools that have policies to those that either do not have such policies or have policies that are not delivering.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On his point about teachers, in the 1970s and ’80s, teachers faced the same problem with a different issue—racism in schools—and it was dealt with. It was not just about training, which he alludes to and is fundamental, but about teachers feeling that they had the support of the wider community, whether governors, education authorities, councillors or Members of Parliament. In a classroom, teachers need to feel that they have the support of wider society to be able to deal with the issue. We dealt with racism in schools in the ’70s and ’80s, and we can deal with this.

My hon. Friend makes an important point and brings considerable experience as a teacher to the debate. The analogy with racist bullying is powerful. It goes back to my opening remarks about why we need a specific policy on homophobic bullying. No one would dare to argue now that we did not need a specific policy to tackle racist bullying; the same can be said for homophobic and transphobic bullying. His point about the reflection of wider social norms is important. Teachers cannot exist in isolation; they are part of the broader community. Tackling such bullying requires everyone—parents, teachers and everyone in society—to challenge it and say that it is not right and cannot be allowed.

Sport has an important role to play. Rightly, there are lots of campaigns to stop racist abuse on the terraces at football games, and we have seen some of the controversy with Euro 2012 at the moment. We do not hear as much about homophobic chants at grounds. If young people go to football, they will pick up on it and think that it is acceptable, so this is not only about schools; there is a broader challenge to society to say that homophobia is not acceptable, because not doing so creates the breeding ground for such sentiments.

I will conclude my remarks now, because I want to give the Minister enough time to respond. I hope that by securing the debate today, I have helped to give the issue the publicity that it deserves and that more schools will take steps to address bullying, which blights far too many young lives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing a debate on an issue of great importance and on his very moving and powerful speech. I know that this is a matter of interest to him; he asked the Secretary of State for Education about the Government’s plans to tackle homophobic bullying in the debate on the schools White Paper in November 2010. In reply, my right hon. Friend said:

“Homophobic bullying is on the rise in our schools, and homophobic terms are increasingly used towards gay students and straight students in a way that seeks to undermine the tolerance that we have built up over the past 15 years. We therefore need to work with organisations such as Stonewall and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and to shine the light on schools such as St George’s Church of England school, which has done a fantastic job in tackling homophobic bullying. This requires work not only by school leaders but by political leaders and all of society to tackle a growing prejudice that is scarring our tolerant society.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 278.]

The Government are committed to tackling this issue. In the coalition programme for Government, we said:

“We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.”

In the White Paper that my hon. Friend referred to—“The Importance of Teaching”—we said that we would

“empower head teachers to take a strong stand against bullying, especially racist, homophobic and other prejudice-based bullying.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) was right to equate pejorative terms used against gay people, or the pejorative use of terms such as “gay”, with the racist phrases that we have almost managed to eliminate from schools owing to the action taken in the ’70s and ’80s. We now need the same approach to the use of phrases directed against gay people.

Bullying, for whatever reason, is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated in our schools. It can have a devastating effect on individuals. It can bring misery, distress, fear and in extreme cases, such as the tragic case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South, suicide. It has no place either in our schools or in wider society. The figures tell their own story: according to the TellUs survey data published in February 2010, 26% of children had been bullied in school in the preceding year and 21% had been bullied outside school. Overall, 46% of pupils experienced bullying at school at some point in their lives.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance in 2011 found that a quarter of 11 to 16-year-olds have directly experienced verbal bullying, with the vast majority of it—79%—happening at school. Almost 40% reported being bullied online or by mobile phone. In 2011, Beatbullying figures showed that more than a third of young people aged between 16 and 25 reported having suffered a severe physical or sexual attack during childhood by a fellow young person. Beatbullying’s 2009 research of 11 to 18-year-olds found that more than 60% had witnessed some form of cyber-bullying. Stonewall reported that two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been victims of bullying.

Homophobic bullying is often directed at heterosexual pupils as well. Stonewall found that 98% of young gay pupils hear the word “gay” used as a form of abuse at school. Even when the language is used pejoratively without thinking, it is still offensive and still unacceptable. I expect teachers to react in the same way as they would to an offensive racial slur.

We know that poor behaviour can affect attainment. Pupils who said that they had misbehaved in most classes had lower predicted key stage 4 attainment—predicting a capped GCSE score 29 points lower than those who said that they had not misbehaved. Bullying can have a serious effect on the education of children and young people, as my hon. Friend said. Our schools must be safe and calm places where pupils can study free from disruption, and that includes being free from the distraction and distress that comes with being the target of bullying. Ensuring good behaviour and tackling bullying is therefore central to meeting the Government’s priority of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

It is important that schools take the necessary action to ensure good behaviour and to prevent and tackle bullying. We cannot dictate how they should do that, but we have made available clear and succinct advice. That includes the checklist prepared by Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour, of the key principles that head teachers may wish to follow to improve behaviour in their schools. In addition, we have updated our advice to schools on preventing and tackling bullying. Schools have a specific legal duty to tackle bullying, and we know that they need clear anti-bullying policies and procedures. Our advice gives information on how to prevent and deal with bullying. It sets out the action that schools can consider when determining their approach to bullying, and it explains the legal powers that schools have to discipline pupils when bullying incidents occur off the school premises. It signposts schools to specialist organisations that can provide further help, such as Stonewall and Beatbullying.

I should like to recognise the work of organisations such as Stonewall, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Beatbullying, Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and the Diana Award in highlighting this important issue. In April, I was pleased to be invited to speak at an event that the Diana Award had organised for its anti-bullying ambassadors. Those young people play an important part in tackling bullying in their schools and communities and set an example to others.

Alongside our advice and guidance for schools, we have given teachers the legal powers that they need to ensure good behaviour. Under the Education Act 2011, we have strengthened their powers to search pupils. New search powers have given teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by providing a specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate images on electronic devices, including mobile phones. We have removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of a detention. We have banned items such as tobacco and fireworks, which have no place in our schools; and from October, we are granting teachers anonymity when they are accused by pupils of abuse. In addition, the new system of independent review panels will ensure that decisions by schools permanently to exclude a pupil can no longer be overturned by an appeal process that can force reinstatement against the best interests of the school.

Schools are now held more closely to account for the way that they tackle bullying. New school inspection arrangements, which took effect in January, focus on four core areas: teaching, achievement, leadership, and behaviour and safety. When evaluating the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school, inspectors must consider pupils’ behaviour towards and respect for other pupils and adults. That will include freedom from bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation and all other kinds of prejudice-based bullying.

It is all sounding a bit rosy, and, much as I recognise all that the Government are trying to do, the experience in many schools is still pretty awful. In some schools, that is because there is no proper sex and relationship education, teachers are not prepared to talk about the issues openly and properly, and there is inadequate preparation. Sometimes, school governors impede the development of proper policies. How are we going to ensure that we address those issues?

The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are important. The issue cannot be tackled overnight with any instant panacea. We have made it clear that the Government regard any form of prejudice-based bullying in schools as unacceptable. We expect teachers to take action when pejorative phrases are used, or when a pupil shouts out in the way that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South. Teachers should take action against pupils who use those words in the same way that they would against a racial slur. Those things will not be dealt with overnight. There is no clear and simple solution, such as the solutions proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We need a range of answers. However, one of the relevant issues is ensuring that schools have proper behaviour policies and that there is an intolerant approach to poor behaviour and bullying, from whatever cause and of whatever type. That is a key priority of the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) pointed out, widespread access to technology such as the internet and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have provided another avenue by which bullying can occur. Such bullying is not confined to the school site or day, but can happen at any time. As has been mentioned, there is no escape from bullying. Going home is no longer a safe haven from bullying for pupils.

To help children and young people to use the internet safely, the Department supports the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—a voluntary organisation that works to protect children from risks including cyber-bullying as well as harmful content, sexual images, grooming, loss of privacy and scams. Earlier this year, UKCCIS launched child internet safety guidance, including on the theme of cyberbullying. Facebook, the BBC and others are using the guidance, which should ensure that, whichever online service children use, they receive sound and consistent messages about what to do if they want to prevent harm or if they have become upset by something online.

In addition, children’s charities such as Childnet and Beatbullying, which are active UKCCIS members, offer expert advice on cyber-bullying for young people to raise awareness of online safety and how to protect themselves. Beatbullying has developed the CyberMentors peer support programme, with dedicated websites using a social networking model to allow young people to help and support one another.

Bullying is not an issue that is just for the bully and the bullied. It can affect a whole school and so can need a whole school to create an environment that prevents bullying from being a problem in the first place. Each pupil has a part to play in preventing and tackling bullying. All pupils should show respect and courtesy towards one another and should be encouraged in that by their parents. Pupils can demonstrate that attitude by not going along with a bully. As Stonewall would put it, “Don’t be a bystander.” That applies of course to teachers as well—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about a teacher who failed to admonish pupils for making anti-gay remarks. Prejudice-based bullying in schools, such as homophobic bullying, is unacceptable. When I spoke last July at the Stonewall “Education for All” conference I said:

“We need to send a message that homophobic bullying, of any kind and of any child, is unacceptable.”

I am happy to restate that message today and will continue to send as clear a signal as I can that we cannot and should not tolerate homophobic bullying.

I have set out our expectations of schools and what they should do to prevent and tackle bullying. We have taken action to support them by ensuring that they have the powers that they need to maintain good behaviour and discipline. We have taken action by giving them clear advice on their duties and their powers. We continue to work with specialist organisations that can provide help and advice, not just to schools, but to those who experience bullying. Schools now need to be able to demonstrate the impact of their anti-bullying policies to Ofsted. I believe that that provides a comprehensive approach to ending not just homophobic bullying, but all bullying in our schools.

Sitting suspended.