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Tackling HBT bullying: three key issues

A report published yesterday by the women and equalities committee has found that schools in the UK often don’t know how to deal with transgender bullying. In this article, SSAT’s Tom Middlehurst reflects on a recent event with Stonewall designed to help schools tackle homo-, bi- and transphobic (HBT) bullying in schools, and highlights three key areas of focus.

A recent Stonewall training day on tackling homo-, bi- and transphobic (HBT) bullying in schools emphasised how much more needs to be done to raise awareness of this issue.

The conversations at the training day, which I helped to lead, were both honest and challenging. Delegates from a variety of different school types discussed their concerns and potential barriers, as well as strategies and tips that they found helpful.

Specifically, I believe there are three key issues that need further attention from individual schools, and the school system as a whole:

  • How do we define HBT bullying? There was a good debate around the difference between HBT bullying, directed at individuals, and what we might call ‘casual’ HBT language. Anecdotally, when students are challenged on using phases such as ‘that’s so gay’ they are often appalled that they might be considered homophobic, arguing that it’s just part of the vernacular. The point is of course, that when young LGBT people hear such phrases, it can have a profound detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing. The statistics are frightening; over half of LGB young people have had verbal abuse at school, while a staggering 16% have experienced physical abuse. The percentages are even higher for trans young people. So although students using such phrases might not consider themselves as using homophobic language, no member of staff should tolerate it in the classroom or anywhere else around school.
  • The legal framework: many teachers in our schools will have trained and taught between 1988 and 2003 when the notorious Section 28 was enforced. Section 28 banned teachers from ‘promoting’ homosexuality and ‘pretend family relationships’. This law was repealed in 2003, but many teachers remain unsure about whether they can discuss LGBT issues. In fact, the law is now very clear: the Education and Inspections Act 2006 ensures a child-centred approach is taken, while the Equality Act 2010 requires schools to eradicate prejudice of all kinds, and ensure the welfare of young people with ‘protected characteristics’. There is also a legal requirement that schools set and publish equality objectives every four years.
  • Monitoring and tracking: to what extent should we track specific incidents of HBT bullying, and HBT language? Delegates agreed that incidents of direct HBT bullying against students or staff should be recorded on the system, in the same way as many schools record racist incidents. These should be reported to governors in the headteacher’s report. But there is also a need to record and track when individuals use HBT language, even casually. For the first few instances, a follow-up conversation can help to educate and broaden understanding; but if the use of language persists, then it was agreed that the school sanctions policy should come into play.

These are difficult issues for schools to address, but the continued work of Stonewall and other organisations helps support teachers and leaders to tackle this in sensitive and intelligent ways.

When one in four young LGB people and an even higher proportion of trans young people have tried to take their own life at some point, schools have a moral imperative to do this, as well as a statutory one.

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