What’s it like to be an LGBT+ student in 2017?

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10 July 2017 by John Shortell
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Since then, legislation may have brought equality in law, but have societal attitudes towards LGBT+ people caught up?

It’s five years since Stonewall released their last school report, which examined the experiences of LGBT+ students at school in Britain. How much has changed since then and are schools and colleges providing safe spaces where our LGBT+ students can flourish?

What’s changed?

Stonewall’s latest report studied the experiences of over 3,700 LGBT+ pupils; key findings from the report include:

  • Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying and the frequency of prejudice language has decreased since 2012 

  • More schools and colleges are taking a stand against HBT bullying and language and there has been an increase in teaching about LGBT+ issues
  • Worryingly, deliberate self-harming among cisgender LGB pupils seems to be on the increase with the amount of suicide attempts remaining largely the same

What’s it like to be an LGBT+ student in 2017?

Whilst there has been some progress it would be an understatement to say LGBT+ students are having a hard time. A culture of silence regarding LGBT+ issues and bullying is sustained by schools and colleges not doing enough to support their LGBT+ students.

Nearly half of LGBT+ students are still bullied for being LGBT+. Bullying experiences range from verbal abuse to death threats and, more often than not, bullying and the use of HBT language goes unchallenged by school staff.

If you’re a disabled LGBT+ student or you receive free school meals, then you’re even more likely to be bullied and experience poor mental health. LGBT+ black, Asian and minority ethnic students are unlikely to have someone to talk to about LGBT+ issues. Only half of the students who experience HBT bullying or language report it, and why would they? Less than a third of school staff intervene when they witness HBT bullying or hear HBT language being used.  

The majority of students reported they are never taught anything about LGBT+ issues at school with hardly any students learning about LGBT+ safe sex and relationships, and even fewer schools tackling gender identity and trans issues.

Given the choice of attending a school or college where LGBT+ students don’t feel safe, respected, supported, part of the community, or able to be themselves, nearly half of LGBT+ students make the decision to stop attending; over half feel that they are unlikely to pursue further education because of their experiences at school.

The impact this is having on LGBT+ student’s mental health and well-being is overwhelming:

  • Eight out of ten trans students have self-harmed and almost half have attempted suicide with almost all trans students admitting that they have thought about taking their own life.
  • Over half of cisgender LGB students have self-harmed, had suicidal thoughts and one in five have attempted suicide.

This cannot continue. Schools and colleges must do more to support our LGBT+ students. Their lives quite literally depend on it.

What’s working?

Schools and colleges that have a zero tolerance whole-school approach to tackling HBT bullying and prejudice language are less likely to have problems with LGBT+ bullying, and students are more likely to report it.  Addressing LGBT+ issues through the curriculum has contributed to students feeling safe, welcome and happy at school and where colleges and schools have an LGBT+ group, students overwhelmingly feel more included and confident discussing LGBT+ issues openly.

What needs to happen now?

There's no denying some schools have made massive culture changes to create an LGBT+ inclusive environment. While a growing number of schools and colleges are supporting their LGBT+ pupils, too many are not equipped to do so.

A zero tolerance, whole-school approach to HBT abuse and bullying is essential. Schools and colleges should work with LGBT+ students and consult parents, carers and best practice organisations to devise an approach that meets everyone’s needs.  All staff should receive training and continued support in how to tackle HBT bullying and language, and there should be specific policies and procedures in place to support trans students. Take a look at our guidance on trans and gender questioning pupils.

It's clear from the results of the Stonewall report our LGBT+ students’ lives are being put in danger and their futures jeopardised by a culture of silence.

Schools and colleges must create a supportive environment for staff and pupils to be able to be themselves and speak out if they experience or witness HBT bullying or language. Openly LGBT+ staff act as important role models for students and can stop LGBT+ students feeling isolated.

The Government’s introduction of statutory SRE in schools from 2019 must be LGBT+ inclusive and require all schools to teach about LGBT+ issues in an age appropriate way. This needs to be accompanied by high-quality resources, training and support for teachers.

If we want our LGBT+ students to have safe and healthy relationships then we need to educate them about consent, abuse, sex and sexual health in ways that reflect the experiences of LGBT+ people.

This is an important step towards ensuring that all students are equipped to make informed decisions about their lives and relationships. ATL will be working with the Department for Education to develop guidance and support for schools on what SRE should include and how to implement this across all age groups and in all types of schools.
 LGBT+ people and experiences need to be reflected across the curriculum, in the library and in resources for parents and carers. LGBT+ people are from all races, religions and backgrounds; they work everywhere and can do anything, and students should be made aware of this. Intersectionality is key to addressing these issues.

The Government’s plans to train education staff in mental health first aid in every secondary school in England is a good start, but training needs to include LGBT+ specific advice and cannot take the place of healthcare professionals or place the burden on school staff.  Conversations about LGBT+ people and issues need to be usualised and students need to know they can talk to school staff and that support is available.

Schools and colleges need to make constructive links with local, regional, and national LGBT+ organisations so that when mental health issues are identified, access to support services and professionals that can offer LGBT+ students specific help is available.

There have been a lot of positive changes since the last school report in 2012 but we are still failing the majority of our LGBT+ students. We need a commitment from all schools and colleges to create safe, supportive and inclusive learning environments where all students have the same opportunity to reach their full potential.

Read the full Stonewall school report.


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