Commons debates homophobic bullying in schools

A protester holds a rainbow flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 3, 2013, as protesters gather in support of same-sex marriage

MPs from all parties contributed to a debate in the House of Commons yesterday that extensively discussed homophobic bullying.

Schools minister Kevin Brennan opened the debate, pointing to the new guidelines introduced last month as positive evidence of the government’s commitment to protect gay, lesbian and bisexual children.

Tory MP John Bercow welcomed the government guidance on homophobic bullying, but said they were particularly needed in faith schools.

“According to the evidence, 41% of gay children in schools are beaten up and no fewer than 17% of them receive death threats,” said Mr Bercow.

“Will the Minister tell us how the revised and strengthened guidance will promote action to counter that phenomenon, especially in the light of the growth of faith schools in which there is often a very strong and traditionalist ethos in regard to sexual practice?

“If that is not dealt with by good guidance, it could lead to a bullying and homophobia that most of us in the House would regard as abhorrent.”

The minister responded that last month’s guidance on homophobic bullying issued by the Department for Children, Families and Schools has been well-received.

“We know from surveys that homophobic bullying is common, yet anti-gay remarks are rarely treated with the same seriousness as, for example, racist remarks in schools,” he said.

“It is important that all school staff know how to challenge homophobic remarks, including the use of the word “gay” as a term of abuse.

“I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the approach that permitted the introduction of Section 28 is now well and truly gone from our politics. I think that that is welcomed on both sides of the House.”

Stephen Williams MP, a Lib Dem education spokesman, criticised the BBC’s attitude:

“What sort of message does he think the BBC sends out when it allows leading disc jockeys, who are listened to by a large number of young people, to use the word “gay” in a pejorative sense?

“The BBC says that is acceptable because the BBC has to reflect 21st century use of language.

“That is the excuse that I got back from the then director-general of the BBC when I wrote to complain about it.”

Mr Brennan did not name Chris Moyles, Radio 1 DJ and winner of Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year award, but said:

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“I have made it clear in public remarks on the matter that I regard that as highly unfortunate.

“It is my view that it is unacceptable for the word to be used in that way. It is particularly important for high-profile figures to remember that.

“Where Section 28 hampered teachers from using their professional judgment to discuss with students sensitive issues around sexual orientation, the new guidance on homophobic bullying, which has been developed in collaboration with Stonewall and Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and in broad consultation with all interested parties, including faith groups, gives teachers for the first time specific advice to help to challenge and to change homophobic attitudes, while supporting and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils, and their right to be themselves without being bullied.”

Mr Williams explained the unique nature of gay bullying during his speech:

“Homophobic bullying is different from other forms of bullying,” he told MPs, “because while a person who is bullied because of such aspects as their race or religion will have a peer group to turn to, a person who is bullied because they are gay, or suspected to be gay even though they are not, will not usually have a peer group in the school to turn to.

“Additionally, they will probably not have had the important coming out conversation with their parents at that age. Homophobic bullying snatches away an integral part of a young person’s identity.”

Tory education spokesman Angela Watkinson questioned the origins of bullying:

“Why do young people bully? Why do bullies do it? That is a complex subject, and there are a wide range of possible contributory reasons.

“They might be very unhappy themselves. The various causes of unhappiness are almost endless. They might have very low self-esteem, which could originate from low achievement in school.

“They might be bullied at home: some families have a whipping boy.

“One person in the family who is always found to be responsible for everything that goes wrong. They might witness other family members bullying in their homes, so it is a learned habit.

“Bullying might be the only way in which they can feel that they have any power or control over their own lives.

“There is also the influence of video games. Most young people have access to computers, and from what I have seen, all video games are based on violence and attacking.

“My grandchildren watch them, as well. I think that the games are perfectly horrid, but they all seem to like them.

“However, some children could be influenced to the extent of wanting to carry out these acts of violence on other children at school.”

She concluded by saying that co-operation between different groups was the only way to tackle the problem:

“The pupils, the governors, the parents’ association, individual parents, the teachers, the ancillary staff, dinner ladies on duty in the playground, the groundskeepers-everybody needs to work together. Unfortunately, the police are also sometimes involved.

“Bullying is not a problem that any one group can solve alone. Government, of course, have the role of legislating, but we need to work together to reduce bullying. That will be a long haul, because as quickly as we resolve one method of bullying, no doubt others will emerge.”

Towards the end of the debate the minister faced close questioning over the faith issue from Mr Williams.

“How can the Minister be confident that every school – especially faith schools – will implement the guidance?” he asked.

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“I have made it clear that I expect all schools to implement the guidance and we will use the national strategies and the Anti-Bullying Alliance to monitor what is happening in schools,” Mr Brennan replied.

“The guidance applies equally to faith schools and we will monitor the implementation in all schools closely. It is a requirement for schools to develop a bullying strategy.”

The minister concluded by highlighting the strong consensus from all parties to deal with the problem.

“The issue is very important: dealing with bullying is fundamental to the learning experience of pupils and a safe working environment for school staff.

“Clearly, on both sides of the House there is a commitment, which I welcome, to tackle the issues.”

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