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Interview: Stephen Twigg, schools minister, Department for Education and Skills - The voice of experience
Daniel Martin/Children Now


When Stephen Twigg was at school he was bullied. Now he's in a position to do something about the problem.

What was acceptable when he was at Southgate Comprehensive in the early 80s is not acceptable now, he says. And an issue close to his heart, as one of Britain's few senior openly gay politicians, is homophobic bullying.

He points to a survey of 300 secondary schools last year which found that 82 per cent of teachers were aware of verbal homophobic bullying in their schools, and 26 per cent were aware of physical incidents.

"The problem is massive," he says. "Twenty years ago people wouldn't have had the confidence to even say that they were being bullied, but we have seen recently that young people have more confidence to talk about it.

"I think it's important that the youth green paper we are bringing out does address questions of bullying, of equal opportunities and the needs of different sections of society."

He wants schools to raise their game. Every school will now have to publish an anti-bullying strategy, and this will have to include a section on homophobic bullying. Implementation of the strategy will then be assessed by Ofsted inspectors.

"The issue of homophobic bullying is a very serious challenge," he says.

"The DfES has encouraged schools to have specific policies to address homophobic bullying, but few do."

At the latest count, only six per cent of secondary schools had a specific policy to tackle anti-gay bullying. That is simply not good enough, he warns.

"We want schools to have a more sophisticated approach," he explains.

"Really for the first time the DfES is working closely with a range of organisations, such as Stonewall and Schools Out, to ensure that issues around homophobic bullying are tackled in a systematic way."

But he stresses that there are many examples of good practice. "So far where there have been positive programmes they have either been at a school or a local level because a group of people in a particular area have taken up the issue of homophobia.

"We want to do what we can to promote best practice and encourage schools, local authorities and the health service, and all the different agencies that are relevant here, to work really hard to learn those lessons and adopt some of the best practice themselves. There is a lot of good work going on but it is patchy."

Twigg says that Section 28, the piece of legislation from 1988 that banned councils from "promoting" homosexuality but was recently repealed, had "cast a shadow" over this work. "Although, of course, it didn't in a legalistic sense directly apply to schools, in practice we all know that many schools and many teachers were at the very least nervous about addressing issues of homophobia because there was in place a piece of legislation that was itself frankly homophobic. I think the end of Section 28 is a real opportunity for us to get this right."

He also sees the extended school model as being able to make real strides.

"The vision of the extended school is a very important one and part of that is saying that there are services that may not traditionally have been provided around school being provided on the school site," he says.

"That covers questions around sexual health but I think it can go more broadly around emotional issues."

Schools have a big role but the DfES can play its part too. "We should look more broadly at opportunities in education. Citizenship education is a core part of the school curriculum. One part of it is to look at how we can tackle prejudice and discrimination."

And next February the first national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender history month will be held. "We will be encouraging schools to take part in that," he says.

"The real test of course is for the research to start showing levels of bullying falling," he adds, "and anything that comes from central Government needs to be tested against the levels of bullying happening in the classroom or around the school."