Luke Tryl is Senior Education Officer at Stonewall and a Conservative Party activist in Lambeth.
It’s now increasingly accepted that though this Government’s raison d’etre lies in tackling the economic crisis, its educational reforms will be its lasting legacy. Even Michael Gove’s opponents admit that from the way schools are governed, to what they teach and who teaches, the Education Secretary is pressing forward with reformist zeal, the like of which we have not witnessed since Butler.
With action being taken on so many fronts to transform our schools, we all might be forgiven for overlooking the sixth bullet of Section 26 of the Coalition Agreement. This announced the Government’s commitment to support schools to combat homophobic bullying. This commitment has the potential to have just as transformative an impact as many of the Government’s headline school reforms.
Importantly, the pledge was not simply a sop to the party’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners; anyone who saw Nick Gibb address Stonewall’s education conference last year, or heard his response to a Parliamentary debate on homophobic bullying last month will be in no doubt that this a key priority for both sides of the Coalition. Nor is it a commitment limited to a metropolitan Notting Hill set, for which there is no greater testament than the fact that last year it was the rural-Conservative led Cambridgeshire Council that topped Stonewall’s Education Equality Index for its work to combat homophobic bullying.
Indeed, it is a fitting tribute to the success of the modernisation project that the Conservative Party, which even up until the early 2000s was rallying for the retention of Section 28, which actively hampered schools’ ability to combat homophobic bullying, is now leading a Government which places such a premium on tackling this very same bullying.
If there were any doubt about why this commitment is so important, a glance at new research by Stonewall, the School Report 2012, should quickly dispel it. The study, a survey of 1,600 gay young people conducted by Cambridge University, found that over half of gay pupils in British schools experience homophobic bullying, and almost all of them hear the use of homophobic language. Equally disturbing, the response from schools, whilst much improved, remains patchy; half of them still fail to say that homophobic bullying is wrong, and almost two thirds of pupils say when they tell someone about bullying, nothing happens.
There might be a temptation for Conservatives to think that such focus on combatting homophobic bullying distracts from a core message of restoring rigour, attainment and aspiration to our education system. However, the report provides clear evidence that these goals are inseparable. Three in five of the bullied young people said it had a direct impact on their school work and more than a third said that they were changing their future educational plans because of it. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching parts of the study are those where ‘straight-A’ students said they had decided to leave education entirely, because they couldn’t face further bullying or that their grades had plummeted as bullying took its toll.
The report can leave no one in any doubt of homophobic bullying’s profoundly detrimental impact on achievement, attainment and aspiration. And this is not a problem limited even to gay young people. Stonewall’s previous 2009 research in The Teachers Report, drawing on a YouGov poll of 2000 teachers, found many young people who aren’t gay face homophobic bullying. That 25 per cent of teachers said that this included “boys who are academic” should be of particular concern.
Mr Gove’s vision is rooted in combatting educational underachievement and this research provides the strongest evidence yet that the path to doing so must include combating homophobic bullying. In terms of the immediate effect on young people’s achievement and the long term economic impact of wasted potential, the impact of homophobic bullying is something we can all ill afford.
The Government has already taken steps in the right direction, but there is still much more to do; in particular to ensure that as part of the shakeup of teacher training we equip teachers to deal with bullying in the classroom. The good news is that such efforts fit perfectly with the wider direction of policy. It’s no wonder that those schools like Perry Beeches in Birmingham, which Mr Gove singled out for praise in his “How are the children?” speech last week and are at the forefront of combatting homophobic bullying, are those which are increasingly in demand by parents, and those which are being pushed to expand and run other schools.
Tackling this bullying is a mission that all Conservatives should be able to support. If we take those opponents of gay marriage at their word when they maintain they do not condone anti-gay discrimination, then they too should be at the forefront of efforts to eliminate homophobia in our schools. Ultimately, all it needs is for us all to take a few more steps – to push our schools a bit harder and to support our teachers a bit more – and we can wipe the blight of homophobic bullying out of Britain’s schools and take a step closer to our shared goal of unlocking the potential of all young people.