In this case study we explore a whole-school approach to addressing concerns about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying in an inner-city London secondary school, where we worked as teachers. We discuss the use of a school-based survey and student-led society to inform changes to staff training, school policy and practice related to students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGTBQ+). (Note: the + is used in the LGBTQ+ acronym to be inclusive of other marginal gender, sex and sexual identities – for example, non-binary, intersex and pansexual.)

The context

An initial conversation with LGBTQ+ students in our school told us that they could feel isolated and unsupported. For example, one student said: ‘There are no provisions for LGBTQ+ students; I feel alone.’ We also engaged with existing research to better understand the wider context:

  • Negative perceptions of educating around LGBTQ+ issues and prejudice experienced by LGBTQ+ teachers and students prevail (Lee, 2019; Greenland and Nunney, 2008). A Stonewall study (2017) showed that 45 per cent of LGB and 64 per cent of T students continue to be bullied simply for being ‘out’ at school, and over half of all LGBT students hear homophobic language ‘frequently’ or ‘often’ at school.
  • There is a higher occurrence of mental health disorders in young LGBTQ+ people (34.9 per cent) compared with their peers (13.2 per cent) (NHS, 2018).

Based on this research, we identified the following key needs:

  • safe spaces and advocacy for LGBTQ+ pupils
  • greater consistency among staff in how HBT is monitored and responded to
  • greater visibility in the curriculum around LGBTQ+ issues.

We presented the findings to school leaders, who enabled us to develop a plan for implementing a series of interventions to address the needs of students affected by HBT.

Gathering school-specific data

We knew that safe spaces are essential for marginalised groups (Ratts et al., 2013). The creation of a student-led LGBTQ+ society addressed the need for safer spaces and advocacy, and provided a focus group for gathering qualitative data about the experiences of students affected by HBT. Our group met weekly and quickly became a cherished community, where LGBTQ+ students shared experiences and built supportive relationships with members of staff.

To gather data about the wider school’s attitudes towards and experiences of HBT, we devised a survey, asking how often pupils had both heard and used homophobic, biphobic or transphobic language (answered using a five-point Likert scale) and whether they had any ideas about what could be done to combat any homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in school.

Over 70 per cent of students heard HBT language ‘sometimes’ or more, yet 80 per cent claimed to have ‘never’ used HBT language. It could have been the case that a relatively small number of pupils were using HBT language quite frequently, but this finding also raised the question of whether our students understood the implications of the language that they used.

Implementing changes

We collected suggestions from colleagues on a suitable protocol for responding to HBT and worked with school leaders to develop it. The protocol included:

  • adhering to the zero-tolerance policy, which was already in place, at all times
  • providing sessions with a member of staff who felt comfortable discussing issues around HBT language and its impact if the incident was thought to require a more targeted intervention
  • reporting all HBT incidents with a specific tag on our information-management system, allowing SLT to track them.

School leaders adapted policy to be inclusive of HBT bullying and abuse, which can lead to LGBTQ+ students feeling safer and experiencing less bullying (Heck et al., 2016).

The need for greater visibility in the curriculum and for education around LGBTQ+ issues was achieved on several levels:

  • We started by expanding on the February LGBTQ+ History Month programme; research showed us that representation of LGBTQ+ people can lead to greater acceptance from peers (Hackford-Peer, 2009)
  • We organised student-led assemblies for all year groups
  • Subject areas committed to reflecting on curricula, and diversifying imagery, texts and examples
  • Sex education schemes of work for all year groups evolved to include non-binary and transgender identities and a spectrum of sexual orientation
  • Posters were used to present student artwork, publicise events, promote the wearing of specially made LGTBQ+ solidarity badges, advertise competitions and educate the whole school community
  • We, as teachers, were visible and accessible as advocates for LGBTQ+ students, and as organisers of whole-school events such as Pride Day in July.

Evaluating the impact

Changes had a direct impact on LGBTQ+ students

With permission from students, we collected data from interviews and LGBTQ+ society discussions. A sixth former told us: ‘I would not be the person I am today; this group helped me find my power and my confidence.’ Another student told us that they felt ‘less isolated and more included’. This sentiment was reflected in the significant increase of openly transgender and non-binary students, and the increase in openly LGBTQ+ students seeking and receiving support from the school.

The school’s response to HBT became more consistent

Staff interviews demonstrated the impact of training, with one member of staff describing feeling ‘more able to identify and challenge HBT’. A trans student reported feeling ‘much safer to tell teachers when I experience transphobia because I feel like something will actually be done about it’. The Safeguarding and SEN Administrator told us that ‘the recording of HBT abuse has become part of safeguarding practice and is therefore dealt with more effectively’.

Some remained uncomfortable discussing topics of LGBTQ+ inclusion

Some members of staff, as well as a minority of students and parents, resisted the changes being made. Some members of staff openly discussed their reservations, while others refused to engage. We ensured that sufficient pastoral support was available to those students who opted into leading school-wide activities such as assemblies. The most powerful tool to combat resistance was the commitment of the school’s leadership, who continued to advocate for change and offer their support and guidance.

Conclusion

Despite challenges, we are encouraged by our findings and know that culture shifts take time and persistence. The approach that we have taken has had a visible impact in our context and may provide useful guidance for addressing HBT in others. Most importantly, we learned that working with our students and enabling them to take the lead was essential in building a school culture where all young people feel safe and can thrive.

References

Greenland K and Nunney R (2008) The repeal of Section 28: It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Pastoral Care in Education 26(4): 243–251.

Hackford-Peer K (2009) Queer and trivial tidbits: History’s role in projects of self-recognition for LGBT/queer youth. Third Space 8(2). Available at: /journals.sfu.ca/thirdspace/index.php/journal/article/view/hackford-Peer/246 (accessed 21 March 2020).

Heck N, Poteat V and Goodenow C (2016) Advances in research with LGBTQ youth in schools. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity 3(4): 381–385.

Lee C (2019) Fifteen years on: The legacy of Section 28 for LGBT+ teachers in English schools. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 19(6): 675–690.

NHS (2018) Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017. Available at: files.digital.nhs.uk/A6/EA7D58/MHCYP%202017%20Summary.pdf (accessed 18 January 2020).

Ratts MJ, Kaloper M, McReady C et al. (2013) Safe space programs in K-12 schools: Creating a visible presence of LGBTQ allies. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling 7(4): 387–404.

Stonewall (2017) School report: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people in Britain’s schools in 2017. Available at: stonewall.org.uk/system/files/the_school_report_2017.pdf (accessed 18 January 2020).