Teach First

Teaching tolerance: how RE teachers can lead the way in challenging homophobic attitudes in schools

Earlier this month we hosted a conference bringing together educators from across the RE teaching community to discuss how we can instil young people with the skills and confidence to work with people from different backgrounds, free from prejudice.

Among the key issues explored on the day were the problem of discriminatory bullying in schools, how to tackle it and how to approach challenging conversations about religious and cultural difference and varied forms of prejudice. Speakers and attendees looked closely at the challenges faced by schools in promoting inclusion and the role that RE specifically can play in this.
From helping pupils to be understanding, sensitive and respectful towards one another, dispelling stereotypes and prejudice and valuing diversity in society, all of the solutions and approaches under discussion involved giving young people the confidence to share their own beliefs, in the context of an accepting and inclusive environment.
Alex Newton, Education Officer from the LGBTQ rights charity, Stonewall, hosted one session, focusing primarily on the issues of homophobic bullying. He revealed some telling statistics: more than half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have experienced homophobic bullying, Alex said, and 99% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have heard the phrases “That is so gay” or “You’re so gay” in school, leading to a sense of exclusion.
Worryingly, three out of five pupils say that teachers who witness this kind of bullying never intervene, while two-thirds of LGBTQ young people say teachers and staff do not speak up against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. These perceptions confirm the scale of the problem and the importance of teachers being aware of it in order to effect systemic change.
Alex also revealed the extent to which homophobia and bullying can impact on young people’s learning and their lives in general: pupils who experience homophobic bullying state that this has a negative impact on their school work, with as many as one in three saying that they’ve changed their future educational plans because of it. Perhaps most worryingly, more than half of LGBTQ pupils have deliberately self-harmed as a consequence of bullying.
Teachers should be in the vanguard when it comes to tackling some of these prejudices, but a YouGov survey of secondary school teachers found that eight out of ten say that they have had no specific training to do so. So, how can teachers use the school curriculum to positively deal with the issue of homophobia in schools and what can RE in particular do to challenge these attitudes?
One example discussed by delegates came from a school in Oxfordshire who tackled these topics head-on by adapting the curriculum and providing training to pupil diversity champions. Both tactics had a positive impact on relationships within the school and the development of vital soft skills for pupils.
Meanwhile, delegates shared their own experiences which illustrated the problems at hand but also offered concrete tactics for encouraging tolerance: “I’ve heard pupils talking about transgender celebrities, saying, ‘It’s disgusting – how can you do that to yourself?’” said one teacher, whose favoured approach was to facilitate open dialogue. “But you can’t go in with ‘It’s wrong to think that’. You need to explore various viewpoints with the pupils and let them find their own answer.”
Another attendee agreed: “It’s about competing interpretations. If you have a child who has different ways of looking at things, then it can feel a bit like a face-off. The implicit understanding is that one is trying to convince the other and that can turn children off. However, if you are there to say that this is one of the many interpretations and that over time some people have said that it is this and that it is that, you can get them to consider alternative views. I think that good RE teachers try to foster that kind of diversity in their lessons.” 
While the role of the RE teacher in facilitating debate was celebrated, involving colleagues from across the school was also deemed to be vital: “The only real way to combat ignorance of any sort is to expose people to knowledge and make them realise that it’s more complex than they think,” one teacher said. “History and geography teachers should be doing this too, even if it’s less obvious that that’s what they are there for.” 
Teachers have a unique role in ensuring that what they teach reflects the lives of all young people, helps to tackle prejudice and discrimination and ensures pupils’ safety and wellbeing. Continual reflection and sharing of experience is just as vital to those teaching as to the young minds they’re helping to develop.