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Monday, 7 February, 2000, 08:53 GMT
Anti-gay bullies 'given free rein'
Homophobic abuse and bullying is rife in schools because teachers are inhibited by the law banning the promotion of homosexuality, according to research from a leading educational institute.
Confidential interviews with teachers have revealed that they choose to ignore the problem because of uncertainty regarding their legal position - so bullies feel they can act with impunity, the research suggests.
The findings flatly contradict the view of the chief inspector of schools in England, Chris Woodhead, that Section 28 had not caused a problem.
Debate on the government's Local Government Bill, repealing the clause in England and Wales, begins in the House of Lords on Monday.
One of the main reasons the government has given for wanting to get rid of it, is precisely to allow teachers better to tackle homophobic abuse.
Ministers' reasoning is backed up by the research, led by Dr Debbie Epstein of the University of London's Institute of Education.
Climate of fear
Teachers who took part in a series of in-depth confidential interviews voiced serious concerns about the effects of Section 28.
Dr Epstein concluded that it had created an atmosphere of "confusion and fear".
Because teachers did not know how to comply with it, they erred on the side of caution, she said. So whenever possible they would ignore homophobic harassment and bullying.
The result was an environment in which pupils believed they could get away with it.
One teacher told her: "Schools have been intimidated out of making sexuality part of equal opportunities by Section 28. Certainly a huge amount of bullying is manifested as homophobic abuse."
Dr Epstein's research shows abuse is commonplace.
Deterred from working hard
"It is the most widespread form of abuse in schools," she said. "Any child who seems 'different' may be subjected to it."
Consequently gentle boys or 'tomboy' girls become targets.
"Boys struggle to avoid being called 'gay', 'poofta', 'bumboy', 'queer' or whatever the local term of abuse is," said Dr Epstein.
"Boys who work hard at school are often labelled as gay and this may deter them from studying and achieving their potential."
This can lead them to try to 'act macho' to show they are 'real boys'.
The problem may also contribute to boys' underachievement relative to girls, which pervades the education system until students are in their late teens.
Dr Epstein has a simple explanation for why Mr Woodhead's inspectors have found no evidence of such problems.
She said headteachers and teachers generally tried not to volunteer their weaknesses, and the inspectors were not specifically asked to inspect this aspect of schooling.
But her team's interviews with teachers and pupils painted a very different picture.
While opponents of Section 28 say it encourages homophobic bullying, its supporters say it protects children from homosexual propaganda.
Pupils at Emmanuel College in Gateshead receive an education with a strong Christian theme.
Staff promote the teachings of the Bible which are the foundation of the school's ethos, and they are absolutely clear about the values they want to promote.
In philosophy and theology lessons, sixth formers are taught a simple message - that homosexuality is wrong.
The school's principal, Nigel McQuoid, says repealing section 28 would have damaging consequences.
"I think we would lose the message that heterosexual marriage for life is the value that we wish to promote.
"I think we would cloud the issue and schools would become places where instead of saying 'This is what we want', we would be saying 'Here are a variety of options, choose which ever one you want'."
Joseph Swan School, also in Gateshead, takes a different approach from its neighbour.
The school does not teach a single message to its pupils in sex education lessons, but helps them develop the skills they need to make their own judgements.
Spokeswoman Maureen Henry: "We promote individuality, and I think that's really quite important.
"We promote every person as a unique individual who has the right to make choices for themselves, so I really don't think as a school we would promote homosexuality or heterosexuality - we promote development and growth."
An earlier study from the Institute of Education was cited in the House of Lords last Thursday.
Based on responses from a survey of more than 300 schools, 82% of teachers said they were aware of homophobic verbal bullying and 26% of homophobic physical abuse.
Almost all had anti-bullying policies, but only a few of these dealt with homophobic abuse.
Most respondents said they would welcome further clarification about the meaning of Section 28 and just over half said it made it difficult to meet the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils.
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