Is homophobic bullying really worse in faith schools?

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.

Categories: Education, Homosexuality, Justice

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6 replies

  1. Great article on an important subject. Provokes a few thoughts for me: 1. Is it really possible to get an unbiased view on the extent of homophobic bullying in a school? If one is in a faith school one will naturally come across a higher proportion of people who will state their understanding that homosexuality is sinful and contra to God’s plan. To my mind that is a valid statement of belief which should be acceptable in any environment that claims freedom of speech – as would be the statement that homosexuality is natural and anyone claiming otherwise is nuts. But to others, especially youngsters, it might be interpreted as homophobic bullying when responding to a survey. I doubt the conditions of the survey were tightly enough controlled to preclude that. I fear a knee-jerk response that interprets stating ones beliefs as homophobic. AND I welcome carefully considered measures to deal with bullying of all kinds in schools. I wonder how the figures on bullying on the grounds of religion would compare.
    2. I think the inhabitants of Soddom and Gommorah would object to your claim that God does not persecute on the basis of behavior. Assuming you agree that being wiped out can be regarded as persecution. God’s standard is fixed and absolute not relative, and I think He’s proved that, once things are beyond redemption, He will act decisively. If He is the creator, then His standards apply absolutely, everywhere, irrespective of whether we accept them or not. That said, it’s Him that gets to act in that way, not us, because only He sees the full picture.
    3. I am concerned about the way schools are dealing with issues of sexuality. My concern is this: That, in their falling over backwards not to appear in any way homophobic, they are positively encouraging a homosexual orientation when presented with an uncertain pupil. I know from personal experience that sexuality is a mercurial thing in the early years of development. I’d like the position in schools to be, ‘don’t be in a great hurry to pigeonhole yourself; it’s way too early in your development for you to be making that kind of call’. I’d recommended we never actively encourage a sexual orientation in schools, but promote taking time, recognizing that this is a hormonally charged time, and that what feels one way now may feel different in 6 months and different again in a year. Alongside that promoting acceptance and inclusion of individuals and refusing to tollerate bullying on any grounds.

    • Thank you Phil. It feels like your comment deserves its own post!

      If you ask many pupils about homosexuality, they’re unlikely to have the maturity to give a considered and balanced response and it’s unfair to expect them to do so. Very few will have thought through the issues and influence of parents, friends and teachers will likely produce a polarised view in a child’s mind. Most adults have enough trouble avoiding prejudiced opinions on the subject, so I would be very wary of reading too much into any one particular statistic.

      I take your point on Sodom and Gommorah, but my thinking is that only God has the mandate to carry out such acts if He so chooses. As Christians we can’t use that story or any other to carry out vengeance on anybody on God’s behalf. We can’t use a story to go around persecting anyone.

      In my experience teachers are uncomfortable talking about most issues to do with sexuality with pupils. They are given very little training, so advice and teaching will vary greatly from teacher to teacher. Schools (non-faith in particular) can be very liberal places at times and advice on sexuality usually is outside of a moral context, so you can’t guarantee that any student is going to get sound advice especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Your point on this is very important. I suspect schools will become more ‘gay-friendly’ over time due to lobbying and external pressures and part of that could see pupils being told that their sexuality is fixed even though some young people will have mixed and confusing feelings as they grow up without coming out fully gay as they get older.

    • Hi Phil. Your comments reflect a lot of my concerns with the way schools and local authorities are approaching this. For a lot of my time at primary/secondary school I was bullied and everyone said I was a lesbian. It was very painful as other girls didn’t want to be friends with me as they would be tainted by association. The school, quite rightly, told the pupils involved to stop spreading rumours about people. Now I’m concerned that they wouldn’t react that way in case this was interpreted as disapproval of lesbian relationships. What would they do now I wonder? I don’t think my 10-year-old self would have thanked anyone for sitting down with me to discuss whether I might be gay! That certainly wouldn’t have helped at all with the current problem of being left out of skipping games in the playground.

      This is what worried me so much about the Eunice and Owen Johns case. Their completely reasonable response that they would not tell an 8-year-old child that gay relationships were either right or wrong, but instead would try to find out why the child was questionoing their sexual identity at such a young age, was swept aside by the local council in their concern to fit in with guidelines on encouraging ‘equality and self-esteem’. This was then hailed by Stonewall as a great victory for they gay community (which is why i no longer trust Stonewall on children’s issues).

      I think a great victory for children would be if the government stopped listening to people like Peter Tatchell hiding behind ‘human rights’ to push sex onto children who should be playing skipping games. The hardfought fight to give children a childhood in the nineteenth century is being undermined – a child’s first human right is to innocence.

      Twenty years on, I’m now happily married. Although I still feel a bit sexually inadequate sometimes, I’m actually glad now that I missed out on the teenage fumbling years. Every cloud has a silver lining.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Liz. You make a very valid point about what is age appropriate and the difficulties of school settings. Adults have plenty of issues when it comes to sex. We shouldn’t be forcing our sexual hang ups onto children. What purpose does that serve that is of any value?

  2. Its hard to say. It would be nice to see some independent research done because there is always a suspicion of ”agenda” if somebody has a particular axe to grind. It does though provide food for thought and something that should be taken very seriously and we should be grateful to Stonewall for raising it as an issue. Children are bullied for all sorts of reasons particularly if they are perceived to be different. I wonder if studies were set up to represent other groups how different the results would be. ie Red heads, Short, obese, skin colour, race , religion, sex. These stats if true even in non faith schools are hugely disappointing particularly if we were to frame the figures in a different way. 50% of schools have no stated policy on homophobic bullying. Only 31% of reported / witnessed incidents are dealt with by teaching staff. 26% of teachers do not challenge homophobic language and 17% of school staff routinely make homophobic comments. There is clearly a particular sensitivity around sexuality, there is also a problem of perception and what is deemed homophobic but the fact remains that bullying in all its forms is harmful. I was reading today that many cases of anorexia are triggered by ”fatty” name calling and we know that many young Gays suffer anxiety and depression or attempt suicide for the same reason. A very high number of those entering Psychiatric care claim to have been bullied at school so getting the culture of respect right in education is vital

    • I wonder if the survey was repeated looking at the experience of students who follow a faith instead of being gay how the results would compare. Lots of pupils in schools get bullied for various reasons.

      Bullying in any form can have serious consequences. My experience as a pupil, but now as a teacher is that it is the worst thing that can happen to someone while they are at school. Children are often not mature enough to appreciate the hurt they are causing and schools have no excuse if they do not act if it is exposed. Schools have to log racist incidents and I’ve seen pupils being severely punished just for shouting a racist insult, whereas I’ve seen pupils get away with much worse, but because what they’ve done hasn’t ticked any boxes they are not punished or receive a mild punishment. This is inconsistency is in my mind unacceptable. Deliberate abuse and insult should be treated seriously, but don’t over-react on one type whilst ignoring others.