Last week the gay lobbying group Stonewall published a major report entitled ‘The School Report‘ on the experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools today. It is the second in a long-term study commissioned by Stonewall and carried out by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge following on from their 2007 study of the same issues.
The report covers attitudes, school policy, homophobic language and how gay pupils deal with their experiences in school. Out of all of this, the issue that has been picked up on most by the media is bullying and within that the likelihood of it happening in faith schools. According to the report:
• Only half of students reported that their school said homophobic bullying was wrong, although only 37% attending a faith school said the same
• 26% reported that their teachers did not challenge homophobic language, but this figure rose to 36% for those at faith schools
• Only 31% said that their school responded quickly to homophobic bullying when it occurred, but this figure fell to 24% when looking at those in the faith school sector
• While no gay young people said they experience ‘bullying’ by teachers, 17 per cent said that teachers and other school staff, however, make homophobic comments. This increased to 22 per cent for pupils in faith schools.
The report also notes that ‘Pupils in faith schools are now no more likely to report bullying than those in non-faith schools’. This compares favourably to the 2007 report which said that pupils who attended ‘faith’ schools were 23% less likely to report bullying than those at other schools.
On the face of it these figures don’t make easy reading for faith schools in this country. Somewhat surprisingly these figures haven’t resulted in a round of faith school bashing in the media, but it does raise questions as to why faith schools come out badly in this. Unfortunately Stonewall’s report does not go into any detail as to why these differences exist, which leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions, which is exactly what I’m going to try to do.
I have to say that this is an important and relevant document, that asks a lot of questions that the education system should be considering. Even if you assume that is going to paint a picture seeking to put any gay lobby agendas in as good a light as possible, it is very difficult to argue with the main findings that gay pupils face a tough time in many of the schools in this country. Being gay is still not seen as an acceptable lifestyle to many students and to be openly gay is to risk becoming a target of unfavourable comments, bullying or abuse.
One of the main sticking points I’ve had with this report is that it does not define homophobia. Whereas the Oxford Dictionary definition of homophobia is ‘an extreme and irrational fear of homosexuality and homosexual people’, it is often now used to describe any view that does not regard homosexuality to be on an equal footing with heterosexuality. I remember having a brief conversation with someone on Twitter a while back where he had claimed that if you do not agree with gay marriage that you are homophobic. I replied that not all gay people agree that gay marriage should become law to which he responded that they too were homophobic. I still can’t get my head round that line of thinking.
The British Humanist Association in their article on The School Report findings cite the recent episode where the Catholic Education Service (CES) wrote to every state-funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign a petition against same-sex marriage as an example of homophobic behaviour by school staff. This is despite the Education Secretary, Michael Gove judging that Catholic schools did not break any law in promoting a petition against same-sex marriage. What this case goes to show is that attitudes or actions perceived as homophobic behaviour by one person are not necessarily so when objectively evaluated.
It is quite possible that faith schools are more likely to be seen to be homophobic in their actions or language if teachers discuss or uphold traditional teaching on homosexuality whether they be Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Whilst this is acceptable in the education system it can give the appearance that a school’s culture is homophobic. This may or may not be the case. It is one thing to state your beliefs that the act of homosexual union is regarded as sinful. It is another to ignore bullying of gay pupils, although it is not difficult to see how one can lead to the other.
However you read these figures and whatever conclusions you draw as a result, it is impossible to deny that bullying can cause emotional and psychological damage. Bullying is never acceptable in a school environment irrespective of the reasons behind it. Children and young people have a habit of picking on others who are different especially if they perceive that adults do not approve of certain lifestyles. I can’t speak for all faith schools, but Christian ones should undoubtedly be places where a school’s ethos demands that everyone is treated with respect. I would expect to see church schools having lower incidents of bullying rather than higher ones with the teaching staff leading the way by example.
Nowhere in the Christian faith does it say that we should persecute others because of their beliefs and behaviour. To give a very obvious example, Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12).
It shouldn’t be difficult for church schools to stick to their beliefs and doctrines whilst at the same time promoting a culture where bullying and abuse of any kind is not tolerated. Surely as a society we will benefit from an education system where children are actively taught that they should not pick on other people or say things they know will be hurtful even if they do not agree with them.
In a piece published yesterday on the Ekklesia website I found this quote by Jonathan Bartley its co-director that summarises what church schools could and should be like:
“I have a dream that church schools would become the most inclusive, most loving, most tolerant, most restorative schools in the country. That they would be beacons of inclusion that welcome children with Special Education Needs, with the lowest rates of exclusion, that take the most children eligible for free school meals, that do not buy into the culture of league tables, and that foster co-operation rather than competition.”
At face value, this report isn’t a fantastic advert for faith schools, but wouldn’t it be a much more powerful act of Christian witness in 2017 when Stonewall publish their next updated study, if it’s found that in faith schools homophobic bullying is significantly less than in other schools. It would provide a significant challenge to those who believe the Church is fundamentally homophobic in its attitudes and to those atheists and secularists who want to see faith schools disbanded.
Stonewall’s report provides a wake up call to all schools to address bullying issues. As with most things in our society, the Church should be leading the way in setting the right example rather than reacting slowly in the wake of everyone else. This is one such opportunity for it to do just that.