Homophobic bullying in schools
The Equality Commission is clear that the education of children and young people has an important role in shaping people’s views and their relationships with others. We consider that schooling can help to counteract the negative views and prejudice that exist in our society. We are also clear that schools should provide a safe and supportive environment for all children, regardless of their sexual orientation, to learn in.
The need to embed equality and good relations in education has also recently been recognised by the Executive in 'Together Building a United Community' (TBUC) which emphasises that “teaching community relations and addressing issues of intolerance and prejudice requires a systematic approach through the education system.”
In 2008, the Commission highlighted in 'Every Child an Equal Child' the difficulties faced by the LGB pupils in terms of hostility and bullying. In addition, evidence from the Young Life and Times survey has highlighted significantly higher levels of school bullying experience among same-sex attracted individuals.
The Commission’s evidence in 'Every Child an Equal Child' recognised the lack of empirical data on the presence of LGB pupils in the schools system in Northern Ireland and the effects of homophobia on educational attainment. We made it clear that this lack of data indicates the need for further research in this area.
Further, research from the Rainbow Project entitled 'Left out of the Equation' highlights inequalities experienced by LGB young people in schools. It also highlights underreporting of homophobic bullying and harassment by LGB pupils to school authorities.
In addition, findings in the Commission’s research on 'Indicators of Equality and Good Relations in Education' highlighted that whilst all schools are required to have an anti-bullying policy in place, it appears that information on the content of each policy (for example, the range and types of bullying covered) and the number of bullying incidents recorded under each policy is not routinely collected or considered.
We have also expressed concern that there appears to be reluctance by Northern Ireland schools generally to address homophobic bullying with the same rigour as other forms of bullying.
A report by the Northern Ireland Policing Board, 'Human Rights Thematic Review: Policing with and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered individual Review', also highlights that homophobic language is particularly problematic in schools. Whilst the report commends the PSNI for taking the lead in discouraging the use of homophobic language in schools, it recommends that more is required from schools, the statutory agencies and private individuals to challenge inappropriate language and to report any homophobic incidents they witness to the police, to teachers and to supervisors in a workplace.
Further, research into the nature and extent of public bullying in schools in Northern Ireland commissioned by the Department of Education in 2011 recommended that research was carried out to understand the attitudes of parents, pupils and teachers to homophobic bullying in Northern Ireland and to identify appropriate strategies to address this. The research also recommended a series of actions aimed at addressing all forms of bullying in schools.
In addition, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its Concluding Observations on the UK in 2008, expressed its concern certain groups of children, including LGBT children, continued to experience discrimination and social stigmatisation.
In particular, it recommended action by the UK Government to strengthen its awareness-raising and other preventative activities, and if necessary, affirmative action for the benefit of vulnerable groups of children including LGBT children. It also recommended that the UK Government intensify its efforts to prevent bullying and violence in schools.
The need to tackle homophobic bullying in schools has also been recently recognised by the FRA which recommended that EU Member States ensure that schools provide a safe and supportive environment for young LGBT persons, free from bullying and exclusion. It recommended that objective information on sexual orientation is part of the school curriculum to encourage respect and understanding among staff and students as well as training for educational professionals on how to handle LGBT issues and deal with incidents of homophobic bullying.
- steps to ensure that schools treat homophobic bullying as seriously as other forms of bullying;
- action to promote tolerance and respect for all pupils, regardless of their sexual orientation; and
- further research into the presence of LGB pupils in the schools system in Northern Ireland, the experiences of LGB pupils and the effects of homophobia on educational attainment and clear action to address research findings.