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“Imagine walking into a room. Everyone not only turns and stares but stops talking, turns their back, rolls their eyes: isolation, silence and self-worthlessness.” The recent Stonewall report on gay school students’ experiences suggests this is reality in many schools.
More than 55 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct homophobic bullying.
Michelle Gordon, Principal Teacher of Guidance at Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) explained that this is how many LGBT school students feel. “A young person who experiences school life where teachers ignore derogatory language, such as ‘that’s so gay’ for something being wrong or bad, watches, soaks up and absorbs all this. That instils a fear and reluctance to share their thoughts with others. Other pupils’ attitudes and comments, as well as teachers’ attitudes, have a huge effect and, if these are negative, can disincline pupils from opening up.
“Teachers attitudes are extremely important. Pupils do look up to teachers: they learn behaviour, seek approval and are inspired by teachers. It’s our responsibility to equip our pupils to make the right choices and develop positive attitudes for themselves. It’s important that schools have a programme that challenges negative opinions on LGBT pupils and that they are aware of available, easily accessible supports.” WHEC has applied for, and been awarded, a place on the Stonewall School Champions Programme. The programme provides support to tackle homophobic bullying and celebrate difference. The key objectives are to build on existing good practice and promote a safe, inclusive environment for all young pupils by:
• updating, in consultation with pupils, staff and parents, anti-bullying policy and launching the new policy during a concentrated anti-bullying week in November
• introducing peer-mentoring and a new, anonymous reporting system
• training staff on specifically homophobic bullying
• providing clearer access to support for young people
• enhancing and building new levels of parental support
• raising the profile of School Champions
• working in continuing partnership with Stonewall.
Michelle Gordon suggested that open and explicit bullying focused on sexuality is relatively limited.
What is far more important is the underlying ethos of the school and the more subtle attitudes of which gay young people can be only too painfully aware. “We want all pupils to feel comfortable, valued and part of the school community so that they can reach their potential and achieve their aspirations and goals in life.” Another Wester Hailes teacher, Janet Walker, explained the school culture. “I think WHEC gets it right. I am aware through teaching the homophobic unit in Personal and Social Education that there are some closed-minded views but this is picked up from family members and not their own thoughts.
“I also think WHEC is good at tackling any sort of bullying head on, whether centring on sexuality, race, appearance or background. Maybe it is because a lot of our students have grown up seeing or living with difficult situations that they don’t want to judge others or maybe it’s because our whole school atmosphere is like a big family and although families can have fall outs, at the end of the day, they stick together.”
Sheila Paton, headteacher at WHEC is delighted.  “A core value of our school community is to promote ‘Respect for self and others’. I welcome the opportunity to work with Stonewall to further develop the excellent practice that already exists here, where we encourage and support one another. Our aspiration is that all of our young people will feel confident and valued.”
Scottish schools have a long way to go before that’s the norm. Wester Hailes Education Centre’s engagement with Stonewall is a great starting point.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on September 24, 2012:

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