While social attitudes might have changed enormously, homophobic bullying in schools remains, writes Iain Stewart MP.
Why do we need a debate on homophobic bullying in schools? Is it not the case that any form of bullying is bad, and should be tackled?
To a point, that is correct. Schools should have effective policies in place to tackle bullying of all kinds. There is, however, clear evidence of a problem with homophobic bullying in particular. Research commissioned by Stonewall in 2009 found that 90 per cent of secondary teachers and 40 per cent of primary teachers had regularly witnessed homophobic bullying.
Statistics, though, cannot convey the extent of the human cost of such bullying. The case of the Crouch family, highlighted in the press, certainly does. Dominic Crouch was a 15 year old schoolboy in Gloucestershire. During a school trip in 2010, he played a game of "spin the bottle" with classmates and, as a forfeit, had to kiss another boy. The event was videoed, circulated around school, and Dominic faced taunts for being gay. It is not actually known if he was gay but such was the effect of the bullying that Dominic committed suicide.
His father, Roger, commendably and bravely spoke up publicly about Dominic's torment and suicide to help highlight and combat the scourge of bullying. Tragically, his own grief was so intense that Roger too took his own life in November last year.
Nor is the Crouch family's story unique. In my own area of Milton Keynes, there were four teenage suicides in 2011. Of these, three were young gay men.
Homophobic bullying can leave deep emotional scars. I know this from personal experience. I knew that I was gay at school but I did not dare admit it to myself or anyone else. Even so, I was seen to be "different" and, while I never received any physical bullying, I did suffer minor name-calling. It was not much, and it stopped after a short while, but it was enough to make me feel isolated and introverted and it took me many years to overcome this. Such feelings can make a young person feel so desperate that their academic performance and social development is impaired.
Social attitudes have changed enormously but, while we do thankfully live in more enlightened times, the problem remains.
Ahead of my debate, I took time to speak to pupils in my constituency. One told me that the phrase "dirty faggot" was used openly in a classroom and went unchecked by the teacher. A Facebook page also existed to "out" students at the school who were believed to be gay.
So what can be done? The government has made a good start by, for example, producing new anti-bullying guidance for schools, and by including within the OFSTED inspection framework the expectation that schools should create a safe learning environment for LGBT students.
But more needs to be done. For all the tool-kits that are available, Stonewall's research has found that the vast majority of teachers do not feel that they have the appropriate training or support. I therefore urge the government to do all it can to improve teacher training in this area.
There is also an incredibly mixed record in schools. While many schools have excellent policies and instances of bullying are declining, too many schools have no effective policies at all. There needs, therefore, to be a better sharing of best practice.
I hope by raising this issue in Parliament to help keep this important issue in the public eye.
Iain Stewart is MP for Milton Keynes South. He has been the MP for Milton Keynes South since the general election of May 2010.