'Cutting anti-LGBTQ bullying programmes in schools is a betrayal of already-vulnerable students'

The government’s recent decision to cut anti-LGBT+ bullying programmes — despite 46% of students not feeling safe at school — is a “huge mistake”, writes Sue Sanders, founder of LGBT+ History Month and chair of Schools OUT UK.


This article first appeared in Attitude issue 331, January 2021.

Students have been through enough this year, with national lockdowns, online teaching and uncertainty surrounding exam results. With many still feeling unsafe in school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last thing they need is the added difficulty of homo/bi/transphobic (HBT) bullying.

The decision last November by the Department for Education (DfE) to cut programmes targeting LGBT+ bullying came as a shock to all of us at Schools OUT UK. We have been working since 1974 to make LGBT+ issues visible in schools and the education sector. As a charity, we receive little funding to fulfil our mission to educate out prejudice. The news was another blow to the students and teachers let down by misguided policies.

In 2014, we were thrilled to hear that the DfE would fund anti-bullying programmes in schools across England, with £4m being spent in the ensuing years. For LGBT+ staff and students, this was a massive step towards schools becoming more inclusive environments.

In spite of this, the reality for LGBT+ people in schools is far from perfect. Although many schools actively embrace diversity and inclusion, using such resources as the-classroom.org.uk, with more and more celebrating LGBT+ History Month, the statistics of HBT bullying in schools are still of great concern.

As the DfE announced it would end flagship funding, Diversity Role Models, one of the organisations delivering training in schools, issued the Pathways to LGBT+ Inclusion: Report, making it crystal clear that there was still much work to be done.

The report came at an interesting time, just as the new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum was being trialled. This caused difficulties in two schools in Birmingham, leading to a court case banning protests against the new curriculum outside school gates.

The report found:

  • Only 27% of secondary school students say their school would be safe for LGBT+ individuals to ‘come out’ as LGBT+
  • 42% of year five and six primary school students and 54% of secondary students report HBT language to be common at their school
  • Only 20% of secondary students report learning about LGBT+ identities and HBT bullying at school
  • Only 25% think that staff would be able to support students who are LGBT+, while parents and carers frequently underestimate the prevalence of HBT language and bullying

The most damning of statistics, however, was that 46% of LGBT+ pupils did not feel safe at their schools.

“Just let that sink in. The place you are relying upon to prepare you for the world… is not currently a safe space if you are LGBT+,” Diversity Role Models’ patron Clare Balding said in a foreword to the report.

Since Schools OUT UK began, we have held training sessions, facilitated conferences for LGBT+ teachers and their allies, and fought virulently against Section 28, which banned any mention of homosexuality in schools.

Sue Sanders is Professor Emeritus of the Harvey Milk Institute, founder of LGBT+ History Month and chair of Schools OUT UK

There have been many positive changes, particularly with the abolition of Section 28 and new laws such as the Equality Act 2010. Teachers’ unions have become key allies and solidly supportive of LGBT+ teachers – in fact, Schools OUT UK was formed from the Gay Teachers Group, back when such support didn’t exist.

Last summer, we saw the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement. This sparked a serious recognition that our education system does not meet the needs of the whole population. There is now a real call for our curriculum to fight prejudice with education. This is the perfect moment to think inclusively.

As we look to decolonise the curriculum, we must also challenge its patriarchal bias, its heteronormative and cisgender slant, and its focus on the able-bodied.

For our work to succeed, we need backing from all: unions, schools, teachers, parents — and the DfE, too.

The DfE need to seriously consider what they are doing to keep children safe in schools after cutting such vital funding. At a time when our teachers are juggling so many demands related to COVID-19 safety, blended learning, supporting students traumatised by experiences of lockdown, and extra duties on top of dwindling staff numbers, HBT bullying cannot go unchallenged due to a lack of resources resulting from government policy.

We can only hope that the government rethinks its decision. At a time of uncertainty, they should be at the forefront of supporting our educational institutions to be safe spaces for everyone.

Sue Sanders is Professor Emeritus of the Harvey Milk Institute; schools-out.org.uk