Despite the legalisation of homosexuality decades ago, discrimination against LBGTQ+ people is still unacceptably common.
To a certain extent, LGBTQ+ children are open to bullying in the same way as any other child, but their gender or sexual identity makes them easier to target.
A school’s policy on any form of bullying should never start at the point of a child being bullied, nor should the outcome be limited to discipline of the perpetrator.
It must include educating children to understand why discrimination is wrong; we must dismantle ways of thinking that reinforce gender dichotomy and heteronormativity.
The Relationships Education, RSE, and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, which made relationships education compulsory in all primary schools, was a step in the right direction. The regulations call on teachers to deliver this with sensitivity and with each individual pupil’s circumstances in mind.
The regulations state that primary school students should have an appreciation of LGBTQ+ families and that ‘differences’ whether in image, preferences or beliefs, should be respected.
While legally parents can choose to remove their child from RSE classes, schools should ideally work closely with parents when planning and delivering these subjects. It’s important for parents to know what will be taught so they are prepared to answer any questions appropriately when their child comes home from school.
A teacher’s initial response matters
Statistically, the odds are that all classrooms include LGBTQ+ students, although many aren’t ready to be open about their sexuality or gender identity. With this in mind, it is likely that a child may approach their teacher as someone in whom to confide.
They should respond as calmly and respectively as possible. The child may have been worried and spent a lot of time building up to this day, but the fact that they have chosen their teacher means they feel they have a supportive ally.
Comments such as ‘Are you sure?’, ’It’s just a phase’ or ‘I thought so’ should be avoided. It’s also wrong to rush in with support that may not be wanted or needed.
The first step is to show an appreciation of their courage in coming to tell you and assure them of your respect for their feelings. The next step is to listen, and only offer advice and support if they ask for it.
Should you tell their parents? Schools need to acknowledge that parents are the primary care givers for their children and their role in the development of their children’s understanding about relationships is vital.
Therefore, ideally, there should be a partnership between home and school. However, this is something that should be discussed with the child.
Have they told their parents? Do they want their parents to know? This may also be an appropriate time to bring the school counsellor into the conversation.
Educating their classmates
Another important part of a school’s support is based on ensuring pupils don’t face bullying, and this can only be done by educating other students about anti-LGBTQ+ bias and the broader issues surrounding diversity.
Research from Stonewall found that 42 per cent of LGBTQ+ school pupils have been bullied in the past year, which is double the number of non-LGBTQ+ pupils (21 per cent).
The debate on how LGBTQ+ issues should be treated in schools has become the subject of intense controversy after a primary school in Birmingham faced months of protests from parents.
In terms of introducing lessons on LGBTQ+, the Department for Education leaves this decision up to teachers, depending on when they feel it’s appropriate. The recommendation is that it is ‘fully integrated into programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson’.
When teaching RSE and specifically LGBTQ+, the use of the correct vocabulary has always been a challenging conversation for teachers.
However, it is important that consistent age-appropriate words are used to ensure students feel comfortable with related discussions.
Take care not to use language that makes moral judgements, shames or alienates students.
Set boundaries around language used in the school, reassure students that any conversations in class will be in general terms, and that explicit descriptions are unnecessary and discouraged.
It is also important to remind them about respecting everyone’s views and feelings and that negative, defamatory comments will not be tolerated.
During any lesson a teacher will inevitably be faced with a lot of questions, so preparation is vital.
If you are familiar with the content you’re discussing and know the facts, you will be better placed to professionally and respectfully answer any related questions.
A question box placed in a quiet part of the school is a nice way to invite questions from students who are not comfortable asking them in front of the whole class.
Of course, some children will deliberately ask awkward questions. At this point it’s important to consider whether they did it deliberately to make others laugh or if it is a valid question. It’s best not to be immediately dismissive.
Ask them to clarify their question and respond carefully using the correct language. Also consider how much information they want. A primary aged student may not need a long, detailed answer, so give a broad answer to see if that is all they wanted. If they want more details, they will ask.
Some schools establish extra-curricular clubs and there should be opportunities here for all students. Consider creating a LGBTQ+ club which can help shape the school approach to inclusivity and gender and sexual identity, as well as providing a forum for peer-to-peer support.
The challenges of social media
Social media requires a special focus because of the specific challenges it presents.
The increasing use of smartphones and social media offering the opportunity for online bullying from anonymous accounts can follow a child everywhere they go. Sadly, most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed.
While the use of social media by primary aged children is illegal, the RSE curriculum includes an awareness about the different types of bullying (including cyberbullying), the impact of bullying, responsibilities of bystanders (primarily reporting bullying to an adult) and how to get help.
Because bullying via social media is less easy for safeguarding leads, teachers and parents to detect, schools need to address their online systems to ensure they are keeping all their students safe.
Given the scale of this challenge and the growing prevalence of the online world, EdTech solutions that provide this support are a must for schools.
Most schools will have a sophisticated approach to ensure the appropriate staff can proactively monitor and track issues between pupils, addressing them before they become a major issue.
These solutions can provide safety toolkits, which help keep schools’ online environment safe at all times – monitoring concerning activity, identifying students at risk and spotting online safety trends.
What’s more, these tools can also help inform schools’ online safety policies while also meeting the latest safeguarding requirements.
We have a long way to go but a combination of education, online monitoring and safety tools, we can start to steer things back in the right direction.
Al Kingsley is Chair of Hampton Academies Trust and CEO at NetSupport