In yesterday’s Observer, there was a truly tragic story of a family who had lost their young son to suicide.
Dominic Crouch, whilst on a school trip, was filmed kissing another boy. Whether it was a prank or whether he had homosexual tendencies is irrelevant. The young man explained that he had been the victim of bullying, stating in a note to his family that he was “so sorry for what I am about to do”.
The school, as well as the police, investigated the situation. Some suggested that the mocking of this child was “no more than school banter” but his father was convinced that Dominic had experienced continual bullying and name-calling that caused him to take his own life.
The Chairman of the School’s trustees categorically stated that whilst they could not find any significant evidence of bullying on the day that Dominic died, they were still anxious about bullying generally, and made it clear that they had a policy on bullying that would not tolerate any form of it, including homophobic bullying that was referenced within the policy.
This raises an interesting point. How are policies developed, implemented and reviewed?
Are policies preventative, responsive or proactive?
A worthwhile policy, particularly on sensitive issues such as bullying, should be developed with representation from the whole school community. It should refer not only to sanctions and rewards but should be directly linked to the curriculum and the ethos of the school. It should, in the case of bullying, identify how it is proactively discouraging bullying rather than concentrating on procedures once bullying has taken place.
Bullying is a tricky issue. It is the ongoing nature of it that is the real issue and the thing that differentiates it from name-calling or petty “school banter”. It is how the behaviour of others is affecting the person who is bullied. It is how others’ behaviour is interpreted, and it is quite difficult to legislate for this range of personal interpretations. However, there are far too many of our pupils, and in some cases our teachers, who endure serious bullying on a regular basis.
According to Stonewall, 65% of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been victims of bullying. This rises to 75% in faith schools. 98% of gay pupils report hearing derogatory comments used in general terms such as “you’re so gay” or “that’s so gay”.
However, this sort of language is not merely directed to gay pupils. Once more, according to Stonewall, pupils are “learning in an environment where homophobic language and comments are commonplace”.
All pupils, that is. All pupils are learning in an environment where this sort of language and abuse is commonplace, and it is not restricted to schools either.
A set of universally agreed values and constant reiteration within the curriculum and within the school that racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism and disability discrimination are not acceptable is the only way to reinforce the clear message that discrimination will not be tolerated.
Challenging perceptions goes much further than “zero tolerance” or “just say no”. Students and teachers alike need to know why such abusive terminology and behaviour should not be tolerated.
It isn’t even about tolerance. Tolerance implies “putting up with” and this is not what we want. We do not want to contain, we want to challenge and we want to eradicate such disrespectful and hurtful behaviour.
We need young people to understand the need to respect differences and deviations from the ‘norm’, and we need them to advocate such respect themselves from a genuine belief that respect is essential in a civilized society.
Work on positive relationships of all kinds need to be encouraged. We cannot contain or tolerate or engineer social change regarding bullying with a one-off lesson or a week of activities. Respecting others has to be at the heart of the school, its values and how it and the people within it operate.
Dominic Crouch’s father decided that he would visit schools, explaining what had happened to him and his family, to try and get schools to change their ways and to ensure that the equal opportunities and the positive behaviour policy was not a document that all too frequently stayed in a box as means of adhering to requirements rather than a programme to tackle discrimination.
He won an award for his work, but sadly his devastation at his son’s death eventually led to him taking his own life too.
A real tragedy.
Which is why an article that was in the Guardian the previous day has to be seen with utter incredulity.
Brendan Barber, the TUC’s General Secretary wrote to Mr. Gove about a booklet that had been brought to his attention. The message within the booklet, “Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be” was evidentially homophobic and was being circulated across schools in Lancashire.
Please read this excellent blog on the booklet.
Mr Barber quite rightly pointed out that this booklet directly contravened the Equalities Act of 2010.
Mr. Gove’s response? “The education provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum. Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.”
It’s almost worth repeating this phrase because on first sight one wonders whether it has been read accurately.
Equality law does not extend to the content of the curriculum?
So how does that work in practice?
By law, schools have to adhere to the Equalities Act. In the government’s own introduction to the Education Bill, “The Importance of Teaching”, there are specific references to homophobia and the work of Stonewall throughout.
Within this document there is a statement that the government “Expect head teachers to take a strong stand against bullying – particularly prejudice-based racist, sexist and homophobic bullying.”
The new Ofsted evaluation schedule makes statements as to what is expected of a school to receive an “outstanding” judgment.
“Pupils make an exceptional contribution to a safe, positive learning environment. They make every effort to ensure that others learn and thrive in an atmosphere of respect and dignity”
“Instances of bullying, including for example, cyber-bullying and prejudice-based bullying related to special educational need, sexual orientation, sex, race, religion and belief, gender reassignment or disability, are extremely rare. Pupils are acutely aware of different forms of bullying and actively try to prevent it from occurring. The school has an active and highly effective approach to identifying and tackling bullying. All groups of pupils feel safe at school at all times.”
Mr Gove, perhaps you could explain how “all groups of pupils feel safe at school at all times” if there are booklets being circulated within curriculum time that outwardly discriminates against a percentage of the school’s population, i.e. those that are gay?
This is preposterous. Even the spokesperson for the Department of Education helpfully points out that “Any school engaging in the promotion of homophobic material would be acting unlawfully.”
So how can The Secretary of State for Education possibly imply that the content of the curriculum is exempt and therefore a booklet dealing with “perfect manhood” be perfectly acceptable? How can you possibly have learners thriving in an “atmosphere of respect and dignity” if homophobic materials are allowed to be handed out in schools?
How can you possibly demonstrate shared human values, respect and dignity, and a living, workable interpretation of the Equalities Act without the respect and the rights afforded to a percentage of the school population?
It is these sorts of outrageous contradictions that legitimizes bullies and their behaviour.
The curriculum is not and should not be a silo that is somehow separate form real life, though we are yet to see the final outcome of the National Curriculum review.
The Equalities Act may not have saved the life of Dominic Crouch or his father, but to ignore the plight of the severely affected through the exemption of the curriculum from the law of equality is just plain wrong.
Mr Gove needs to have a serious rethink and to look at this whole issue rationally and more realistically.
If there are any discriminatory loopholes in current legislation then Mr. Gove ought to state very clearly that he intends to deal with them through further legislation to ensure that in future there is no scope for the distribution of books or other documents which imply or even state overtly that homosexuality is an affliction or a condition which God finds undesirable.
It’s entirely possible that Mr. Gove himself harbours similar beliefs, but if so he would surely agree that it would not be appropriate for him to promote them by handing out literature in schools.