Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Stonewall School Report 2017: What Needs To Be Done To Make Our Schools Truly LGBT+ Inclusive

This morning there was the release of Stonewall's 2017 School Report, research that had been conducted by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. The report provides a vital snapshot into the experiences of LGBT students, with 3,713 participants having responded to
an online questionnaire covering areas such as language, wellbeing and mental health and Internet and Social Media use. The School Report indicates that there has been improvement in schools tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying: the percentage of HB bullying has decreased from 55% in 2012 to 45% in 2017 and 50% of students hear homophobic slurs "frequently" in the classroom environment, which is down from 70% in 2012. However, the percentage of students who have experience transphobic bullying remains worryingly high, with 64% of respondents stating that they had been bullied on the basis of them being openly trans. 57% of non-binary pupils have also stated they were being bullied for being open about their identity. The question is, how do schools help to create an environment that is truly inclusive, where teachers, support staff and students feel comfortable enough to be open about their gender identity and sexual orientation and whether students have the awareness needed to act as responsible global citizens who are tolerant and respectful of differences?

HBT Bullying and Language:

It's pleasing to see that some progress has been made towards address HB bullying; 70% of LGBT+ students have said that their school has openly stated that HB bullying is wrong, a massive increase from 25% in 2007. However, only 41% of students reported that their school had openly stated that transphobic bullying is wrong. This is unacceptable and there needs to be a change in attitudes in schools that makes it clear that transphobic bullying under any circumstances is wrong. In order to explore why I believe it is wrong, I feel it's necessary to reflect on my own experiences whilst at secondary school in the early and mid 2000s.

I was extremely lucky to attend the Priory LSST (now The Priory LSST Academy) that had an inclusive culture in place which included a zero-tolerance attitude towards bullying of any kind. I did experience name-calling  (the usual gay being used as a slur, camp hand gestures because the pitch of my voice was higher than others in the year, being called he-she/fag/tranny etc) on a systematic, weekly basis from a group of specific individuals but because I wasn't openly calling myself trans non-binary at the time, I didn't feel I experienced any specific name-calling and bullying that directly targeted my gender identity at the time. I now realise that they were bullying me because of aspects of my identity and I didn't deserve to be subjected to it. You are who you are. I was personally afraid to be open about my feelings because I thought I'd been perceived as "mad" by my friends but the signs that I didn't perceive myself as being male were there: I'd never take my vest off in the changing rooms for fear of being stared at by my peers and I always felt uncomfortable being referred to in the third person or as a "boy", insisting they use my name instead. I always insisted on playing a female role in Drama lessons and whenever I created my own characters, they were always female. I have met friends who are non-binary who carried out similar actions at school without explicitly coming out as non-binary. It may have been because the words "trans" or "non-binary" were never used at school and my parents never used them at home either. Instead my Mum always referred to me as "different" and just loved me for who I am.  Again, that's me being fortunate and lucky but it's still sad to see that 40% of respondents to the survey say they can't speak to a parent about LGBT+ issues.

The name-calling I've described above was on top of the name-calling I received due to my short stature and the way I moved due to my dyspraxia (a disability affecting hand-eye coordination). For example, I was regularly called "Colleywobbles" because of the way I walk (my feet are misshapen and face outwards as result of how my feet developed whilst I was at primary school). The School Report figures have revealed that disabled LGBT+ young people are more likely to experience HBT bullying than non-disabled LGBT+ ones (60% as compared to 43%). This is not acceptable and teachers need to support disabled students who are bullied for both being LGBT+ and for their disability. That means reiterating that they are available to have confidential conversations and take action against the bullies as soon as possible, making good on the commitment they have made openly. You see most of the teachers at the school reminded us that we could confide in them privately if we had been name-called on a systemic basis but I never felt I could talk to them fully about my gender identity or sexual orientation because no action was ever taken to rebuke HBT bullies. That in addition to there being no teachers and support staff who openly discussed their gender identity or sexuality in the classroom made me feel as if I'd never be understood and helped in any other way than academically. I was always speaking to my teachers before and after class but this was almost exclusively on academic issues- whether I could make a good teacher when I finished my education, whether Henry VIII really loved Anne Boleyn, whether 2+2 =4 etc etc. I never spoke to them directly about the bullying I experienced as a result of my disability because I don't think many of them knew what the definition of dyspraxia really was and adding my feelings of gender dysphoria into the mix, it made me a very shy but supposedly "gifted and talented" child. The School Report shows that students still feel wary about talking about the HBT bullying they experience: 45% of students say they've never told anyone about the bullying, with 63% stating that "it's not easy to talk to anyone". With teachers not talking about LGBT+ issues, I'm not surprised at these figures.

What was effective at the Priory LSST was the  "anti-bullying champions" Prefect system, created to help foster a zero-tolerance culture against bullying in all its various forms. Such champions (drawn from Year 9 through to Year 13) would befriend and hang around with Year 7-9  students who may have been perceived as "different" by others and be open to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. I remember an instance of homophobic bullying that occurred in an English lesson where I walked in on a group of three (rather nasty) Year 10 boys picking on my fellow Year 8 friend, calling him a "pansy", a "nancy-boy" and a "groper", falsely accusing him of having touched one of them on the bottom. It turned out that aforementioned Year 8 friend had tried to get past the boy in question and his schoolbag happened to brush past him, making contact. A Year 11 anti-bullying champion happened to be in the vicinity of the classroom and stopped the boys from gesturing and name-calling, managed to get some initial witness statements from those in the classroom and informed the teacher promptly when he arrived. Luckily the Year 10 boys were the only ones to end up facing punishment (I later heard they'd been given detention for a week) and they were made to apologise to my friend for their behaviour. So you see, anti-bullying champions can really make a difference to the school environment and the more of them that are trained in having the confidence to help LGBT+ students, the better; the School Report reveals that only 41% of LGBT+ students had seen their peers intervene to stop HBT bullying which is still more than the 22% of students who had seen teachers intervene.

I realise my school's attitude towards HBT bullying in the early 2000s seems rather proactive in hindsight. I've spoken to LGBT+ friends whose school experiences involved sustained stalking, systematic abuse and harassment and in one case, sexual assault. The School Report states that 7% of LGBT+ students have been the victim of physical bullying, with trans students twice as likely to be a victim than LGB students who do not identify as trans (13% compared to 6%). Any physical act of violence shown towards a LGBT student should be recorded, with the perpetrators removed immediately from the classroom and reported to the police if the act has resulted in the LGBT student sustaining injuries (i.e. a crime). Perpetrators should also be appropriately disciplined, whether that involves detention, temporary suspension or exclusion. Schools must be a safe environment for all pupils, including those who openly identify as LGBT+. The School Report shows this is not yet the case: 19% of LGBT+ students stated that they do not feel safe at school, 9% of trans students stated that they have received death threats whilst at school, 3% have experienced sexual assault and 4% have been threatened with a weapon. That shocks me to my core. Why is it the case that students feel emboldened to threaten their trans peers (open and not) with knives or sexually assault them?

Attitudes need to change amongst the teaching establishment as a whole. Teaching unions are leading the way in encouraging teachers to support their trans students and headteachers need to make it crystal clear that teachers have a duty to tell their students openly that transphobic bullying and language is wrong in any context. Not addressing transphobic language, attitudes and bullying when students are at secondary school does lead to those students entering the working world still believing such attitudes are acceptable when they are not. Transphobic discrimination in the workplace is illegal under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 (protected characteristic of "gender reassignment surgery" applies to employees who are intending, are perceived as intending or going through such surgery) and if a transphobe has committed a criminal offence, they may be prosecuted and convicted of carrying out a hate crime (Parliament has passed legislation in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that means that offenders can receive tougher sentences if prosecutors can provide evidence of that offender having hostility towards trans people). We want to reduce instances of transphobia in society in general and teachers and support staff need to play their part in this.

I'm concerned to read in the School Report that teachers and support staff are not routinely challenging HBT language when they hear it in the classroom; 68% of respondents say they've very rarely or never heard their teacher "sometimes" challenge those students who are using HBT language. Teachers and support staff must have the confidence to explicitly state the language is wrong and if they do not believe themselves that the words being used ("tranny", "fag/faggot", "he-she", "shim" etc are are wrong, they desperately need to go on a diversity training course as part of their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to learn why those words cannot be condoned in any form and if they can't get to grips with that, they genuinely need to question whether the teaching profession is right for them when they feel they cannot protect all students within their classroom. Enough of bigotry and enough of silent acceptance. Stand up and support your LGBT+ students.

A zero-tolerance approach across the school environment to HBT bullying is essential and headteachers should review their bullying policies to ensure that they are fit-for purpose. Headteachers could discuss their policies with organisations such as Stonewall and take on-board suggestions made. They must also ensure that all teachers and support staff at the school sign up to the policy and promise to implement measures when they observe HBT bullying in the school environment. If teachers fail to take necessary action and refuse to take part in attending training courses, disciplinary procedures must followed and if teachers are found to participate in HBT bullying in any way, disciplinary procedures must be enacted as soon as the report has been received. Headteachers must explicitly state that transphobic bullying and language use is wrong. The School Report reveals that in schools where this has happened, trans students are less likely to worry about bullying and more likely to report it and are twice as likely to "rarely" or "never hear" transphobic language at school.
Most importantly, headteachers should openly support LGBT+ equality; only 19% of students said they'd heard their headteacher talk about it. Part of supporting LGBT Equality is to encourage the setting up of LGBT+ group for students that meets once a week to allow students to socialise and to discuss the issues that affect them. A representative from the group should be on the school board to discuss the concerns raised with the headteacher. The benefits of the group are that LGBT+ students are more likely to feel part of the school community and are having their concerns addressed. There's no extortionate expense to setting up the group and it can actually lead to real change in the culture of the school environment. That can only be a good thing.

Accommodating Trans and Non-Binary Students: 
I think it's essential that schools take a positive approach to helping students who have disclosed to them that they are trans and non-binary:

  • student confidentiality must be respected; I'm happy to read that when trans students disclose their status to teachers, 75% of them ask about how best to support them but it's not acceptable that 19% of trans students have stated that their teachers did not respect their wish for anonymity. No teacher should disclose a student's gender identity without permission because such disclosure could lead to them becoming subject to bullying. The choice to publically disclose is the trans student's alone. 
  • teachers should have a basic idea of when to signpost trans and non-binary students for further advice and support: 60% haven't been provided with any advice and guidance, such as which organisations they can speak to (Mermaids is one dedicated organisation that all trans and non-binary students can be referred to). 
  •  trans and non-binary students should be allowed to use the bathroom or changing room they feel comfortable using; if a student has openly disclosed their status and have indicated which bathroom and changing room they wish to use, they should be accommodated wherever necessary and dispel any stereotypes being perpetuated by students (e.g. a pre-op trans female student isn't going to flash their penis).
  • trans and non-binary students should be referred to by their preferred name and pronouns, with registers being updated to reflect this; 33% of trans students report that their school keeps using their dead name rather than their preferred name.
  • trans and non-binary students should be able to wear the uniform they feel comfortable in; 20% of students are still being told they cannot wear the uniform that reflects their gender identity. 
These 5 actions need to be taken if schools are to be truly trans and non-binary inclusive.


LGBT Teacher Recruitment: 

There is far more that educational establishments can do to try and reduce instances of trans bullying; for example, incentivising the recruitment and retention of trans and non-binary teachers in state-maintained schools would help provide a number of positive role-models for students to identify with, regardless of their own gender identity or sexual orientation. The report states that there are no figures for students who knew trans members of staff in school; it's bad enough that only 4% of respondents to the School Report knew they had an openly bi member of staff in their school! Bi and trans visibility in the teaching professions remains stubbornly low, with graduates being put off pursuing a worthwhile career because they feel they may be openly discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Universities who run PGCE courses and schools participating in teacher training programmes should proactively counter and challenge the narrative that schools are not trans and non-binary inclusive and reach out to LGBT+ societies on campuses to encourage students to consider volunteering in schools to explore teaching as a viable career option. I would have dearly loved to have become an English and Philosophy teacher but I found it very difficult to find a volunteering opportunity after I graduated in 2010 to gain the necessary experience needed to have a chance of having my teacher training application approved and I don't want other trans and non-binary graduates who have achieved the necessary qualifications to go through the same experience.

Sex and Relationships Education:

The School Report findings back up recommendations made by organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is needed in schools that is at least LGBT inclusive (I'd like it to be non-binary, queer, intersex and asexually inclusive too): 40% of respondents revealed they are not being taught anything about LGBT issues at school, 76% haven't learnt anything about bisexuality in school and 77% have not been taught about gender identity and so have no idea what being "trans" means. Only 20% of LGBT students overall and 10% of faith school students had been given any advice and guidance on same-sex relationships. 13% of LGBT students have been taught about healthy same-sex relationships and only 20% of students have learnt about consent in same-sex relationships. 17% have learnt about violence or abuse in relation to same-sex relationships. Given that the primary duty of an educational establishment is to impart vital information to students so they can appreciate the diverse world in which we live, the fact that students are still leaving school without any understanding of gender identity, healthy same-sex relationships, consent and domestic abuse and violence is quite frankly shocking.

It is important that SRE guidance provided to schools is appropriate, written by SRE experts with input from LGBT people to inform lesson planning. Whether SRE would be delivered by the same teacher who has responsibility for Personal, Social, Health and Economics Education (PSHE) or whether it will be a teacher with a background in social sciences or the Arts is not yet clear. I would love for there to be a specific PGCE pathway to be created that allows for applicants to train in PSHE and SRE as their main specialism but embedding SRE into existing PGCE and teacher training programmes could be a way of ensuring teachers are equipped to teach the subjects when required to do so. I'd rather foster a passion for SRE and PSHE; if teachers are engaged with the subject material, they can impart that information in a lively and enthusiastic way and students may be more likely to retain the information years afterwards.

Current PSHE must include the basic information on LGBT+ issues; it's embarrassing that some students are leaving school with no idea that gay, lesbian and bi people can get married (58% of respondents said they've never been taught about same-sex marriage or civil partnerships).

Another aspect of the School Report that concerns me about the current curriculum is that only 20% of LGBT pupils are being taught about safe sex in same-sex relationships. There is an argument put forward that teachers do not have the time or the resources available to them to be able to teach their students about all forms of safe-sex. At my secondary school we received no direct sex education that was LGBT inclusive (hence why I had no idea that trans people existed) and the only sex education we did receive was delivered in a half-an-hour Biology video in Year 9, a series of worksheet based lessons that followed on from that video and a Year 11 hour lecture delivered to the whole year group with the instructor talking about how to put a condom on the banana. Not very instructional or reassuring (good job I haven't shown much inclination for sexual activity anyways!) I believe that sex education in schools must include helpful information on same-sexual intercourse free from judgement. It's embarrassing that young people are being left to learn about same-sexual intercourse online and are being taught that it shouldn't be talked about; silence is sending out a signal that same-sexual intercourse is still "wrong" when in-fact it is far from being wrong.

However, having strong SRE and PSHE provision isn't really enough. The National Curriculum as a whole should have a focus on LGBT+ acceptance and encourage students to take an interest in LGBT+ issues and admire LGBT+ role models. Only 25 of LGBT students reported that they had discussed LGBT+ issues in English or Geography. Embedding LGBT+ awareness into PGCE courses beyond the Equality and Diversity requirement is key. Why not talk about Lord Byron as a bisexual in English Literature lessons? Why not celebrate Alan Turing as a gay role-model in Science lessons? Students in GCSE Religious Studies lessons already learn about marriage and divorce and various religious and ethical views on sex, so why not devote a lesson to discussions of gender identity, with reference to a range of religious views (OK some of those views are far from accepting but they have been openly stated-e.g. Pope Francis talking about the "ideological colonisation" which is nonsense btw)? Discussions about gender identity should take place but in a respectful manner. The individual responses quoted in the report which talk about positive experiences of embedding LGBT+ issues into the curriculum speak for themselves; Sadie mentions that she discussed work by Oscar Wilde and Audre Lorde whilst studying A-Level English Literature; how amazing it would be if engagement with LGBT+ authors, poets and playwrights happened at Key Stages 3 and 4?

Wellbeing and Mental Health: 

We need a comprehensive approach to help deal with the mental health crisis affecting our LGBT+ students in schools. The name-calling that I received systematically from my bullies in the early years of secondary school (it fizzled out by Year 10) made me feel anxious and worried about being truly myself. I remember numerous school days which ended with me coming home, running to the toilet, locking the door and crying for an hour or two wondering what I'd done to deserve such bullying. There were days when I didn't want to go to school to face my bullies and I'd be happy whenever I happened to have the flu or vomiting bug because it meant I didn't need to attend and listen to their vitriol. Yet anxiety is unfortunately not the only mental health condition experienced by LGBT+ students. It's not right that 84% of trans young people who responded to the School Report have self harmed and 45% of them have attempted to commit suicide. The figure for LGB students self-harming is at an unacceptable 61% with 22% attempting suicide. It breaks my heart as an equal opportunities activist to read these figures. No young person should ever have to feel ashamed of their feelings or their identity to the point where they are cutting themselves with razor blades and planning to end their own lives. Labour have a specific plan to help these students, which involves ensuring that every school in England has access to a counselling service, the number of mental health professionals including specialist nurses increasing and the number of school nurses increasing too. The Conservative Minority Government, propped up by an openly homophobic, biphobic and transphobic Democratic Unionist Party have shown very little inclination to make the counselling service immediately available to schools, which I think is a great opportunity missed. PM May promised to protect LGBT+ people in the UK if she were to retain her premiership during the last General Election campaign Pink News interview; she now needs to prove that her words are worth more than the computer they were written on. That means providing investment in school counselling and pushing forward with plans to make mental health services more accessible to young people who are self-harming. Organisations such as Mind and the LGBT Foundation have specific programmes in place to help LGBT young people; for example Mind has their online Elefriends community which has currently 50,000 members who help each other talk about their condition free from judgement and if a similar scheme were to be brought in specifically aimed at 12-18 year olds and curated and monitored by trained professionals, it may help them discuss their mental health in an open way. All teachers should be trained in mental health first aid by headteachers signing their schools up for the "Mental Health First Aid" programme and school nurses should be aware of how to help LGBT+ students with specific health concerns. Schools should liaise closely with Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health Services so that students have access to the specialist support they need as quickly as possible.

Social Media: 

65% of LGBT+ students believe that social media companies would not tackle abuse or remove HBT content when it had been reported by them to those organisations. Young people are spending increasing hours accessing social media content and I believe that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have a responsibility to carefully filter and curate the content with offensive posts being removed as quickly as possible after being flagged. Whilst I accept that it is inevitable that young people may come across HBT abusive content whilst online (97% of respondents have seen such content), taking robust and quick action when the content is reported might increase confidence and trust in online platforms which would be a positive outcome.

There is a problem with Social Media trolling at the moment and I believe that it needs to be addressed in a robust, comprehensive and rigorous manner. 40% of respondents to the survey indicated that they had been a direct victim of HBT abuse carried out by trolls, including 58% of trans respondents. With digitalisation has come new forms of abuse and it's worrying to read that 6% of LGBT+ students have been photographed or filmed without their consent and 3% of students have had social media accounts created by abusers pretending to them to get them into trouble. 75% of students who have been bullied online did not reported the abuse to the platform. That demonstrates a lack of trust in online platforms to tackle HBT abuse.  I also believe trolls need to be blocked from accessing the platform entirely if evidence has been found to indicate sustained stalking and trolling of young people's social media accounts, with them being reported to the police for appropriate action to be taken.  Stonewall has recommended that social media platforms consult with organisations to improve their reporting procedures but I also believe that clearer signposting needs to be made available online to victims of HBT abuse and bullying so they access the help and support they need emotionally to deal with the after-effects of that abuse; you'd think in 2017 that Facebook would be able to send a message to victims that had details of organisations such as Stonewall or the NSPCC given that they already have online websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts with contact information on.

We must also beef up Internet Safety lessons in primary and secondary schools at all key stages within the National Curriculum further so that students gain the confidence needed to report content and trolls because they understand it is part of keeping themselves safe whilst online. Such lessons would also protect LGBT+ students from becoming victims of abuse online perpetrated by padeophiles. The Dare2Care campaign, established by Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham and Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities has a recommendation within their National Action Plan that calls on teachers and support staff to be given training on a regular basis so they have up-to-date knowledge and awareness of new online platforms, apps and trends. If we are to help LGBT+ students, the training provided as part of a teacher's Continuing Professional Development must be fully LGBT+ inclusive. That may mean the Department for Education commissioning organisations such as Stonewall and Mermaids to design specific courses to help deliver content directly to teachers and other educational professionals; LGBT+ people should be involved in the creation of content to ensure it is truly fit-for-purpose and can give teachers some ideas that they can implement in their own classrooms.

Conclusion: 

The School Report 2017 findings have shown that there is an urgent need for schools and educational establishments to look at their plans, processes and systems to ensure that they are truly LGBT+ inclusive, especially for trans, and non-binary students. Teachers and support staff must continue to have access to training opportunities so they can increase their awareness of LGBT+ issues and develop strategies to help students in their classrooms on an individual basis. Headteachers need to openly talk about LGBT+ equality, take a firm stance against HBT bullying and encourage the setting up of LGBT+ inclusive groups. Schools should work with local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to allow LGBT+ students access to counselling. Signposting should be available to students so they can access advice and guidance from organisations such as Mermaids and Stonewall. There should be a drive towards encouraging more trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender graduates into the teaching profession. The National Curriculum should be embedded with opportunities to discuss LGBT+ issues and role-models.Most importantly of all, SRE needs to be introduced that is truly LGBT+ inclusive. If I was the Secretary of State for Education, I'd be asking for the creation of a SRE curriculum that can be delivered in all schools and mandating that it will be delivered in faith schools, with lessons already built in addressing LGBT+ issues. Perhaps that may one day be the case. For now we have to make do with the rather wishy washy promise to provide guidance to state-maintained schools and hope that individual schools openly choose to have discussions around safe same-sexual intercourse and gender identity. I only hope the School Report shocks schools into action so they can truly be an inclusive and nurturing environment for ALL students, where they can be open about their gender identity and/or sexual orientation and respected for their openness.