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Dept Education disconnectedness – a case study October 10, 2009

Posted by Tomboktu in Education, Human Rights, racism, Rights, Sex, Uncategorized.
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Even if there hadn’t been a scandal over the Ceann Comhairle or negotiations on a revised programme for government, parliamentary question no. 1271 last Tuesday would have had to struggle to get any attention. For starters, it was for written answer; further, it was for answer on a day when the Dáil returned after a break (and thus it was included in a long list of answers that had built up over a fortnight); finally, it was about an issue many would consider to be a minority interest. But question no. 1271 does merit some attention, not just for that subject matter, but possibly more so for what the answer reveals about the lack of even the most simple joined up administration in our government.

The (possibly) minority-interest issue is homophobic bullying in schools. The question, from Labour’s Ruairi Quinn, asked for statistics on what school inspectors found about school policies and practices on the issue during their routine whole school evaluations.

Minister Batt O’Keeffe uses three paragraphs of his answer to set out the law on school codes of behaviour, to outline administrative provisions on school policies on bullying, and to summarise what inspectors do – and what they don’t do – when conducting a Whole School Evaluation. It is not until then that Deputy Quinn’s question is answered:

The [Whole School Evaluation] reports published by my Department in 2008, and 2009 to date, have not explicitly identified problems with homophobic bullying, nor have school policies and practices to deal with such behaviour in individual schools been identified by inspectors as causes for concern.

The reason for this is

The review of anti-bullying policy during a [Whole School Evaluation] does not focus explicitly on any single category of bullying or harassment such as homophobic bullying.

Now, it’s not as if the Department of Education doesn’t know that there is a problem here. Ruairi Quinn’s question hints at that when he sets out the timeframe for the statistics he wanted as being “since the second report on homophobic bullying in schools was published”. That reference in Ruairi Quinn’s question is not the clearest, but I think reasonable to suggest that it refers to two reports on research by Dr James Norman and his colleagues in DCU’s School of Education. And my reason for thinking these were what Ruairi Quinn was referring to? You see, the studies were commissioned by the Department itself, and Ministers in the Dpeartment launched them with press releases.

The first report – dated 2004 – found that 79 percent of  a large sample of SPHE teachers had enocountered instances of verbal homophobic bullying in the school term in which the research was conducted. Physical homphobic bullying was observed less frequently at 16 percent (still worrying), but where that was witnessed, there was a very high incidence of repeated physical homophobic bullying (87 percent). (I also wonder if there is any form of physical bullying that would not come within the ambit of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act.) The report also found that 90 percent of the school’s policies did not refer to homophobic bullying.

The second research report, published in 2006,  used a different approach. It went into significant depth in five schools, interviewing 100 teachers, parents and students (that is, 100 in total, not 100 of each). All of the students in that study reported that homophobic insults – ‘slagging’ using words like ‘faggot’, ‘queer’, or ‘dyke’ – are pervasive, and the researchers found that the evidence suggests “parents and teachers accept these terms as normal behaviour”. (I don’t know if there is research on equivalent racist or sectarian insults, but I doubt it would suggest that parents and teachers accept such terms as ‘normal behaviour’.)

The good news in Minister O’Keefe’s answer to the parliamentary question is that

My Department has also been working with the Gay Lesbian and Equality Network (GLEN) on the development of guidance material for school leaders in supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual students in second-level school. “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students in Post-Primary Schools: Guidance for Principals and School Leaders” produced in association with the education partners and published jointly by GLEN and my Department, will be launched next week [by Minister of State Seán Haughey TD] and circulated to schools.

Maybe I am excessively cyncial, but I think two characteristics of that announcement tell us more than the Minister probably intended. It sends a signal that a junior minister is launching the report – and at that, a junior minister with no particular responsibility in this area (Seán Haughey’s three-fold remit is school transport, lifeling learning, and educational disadvantage). Perhaps more significant is that fact that the guidance has been produced in association with an NGO. That is not the situation with the Department’s Guidelines on Traveller Education in Second-Level Schools or its Guidelines for Developing a School Substance Use Policy, for instance.

Ultimately, though, the Department’s publishing of guidance is not a sign that it is addressing the issue in a meaningful way. The Department is failing in its duty because  in the two school years since the Norman reports were published, not even once have inspectors used their routine Whole School Evaluations to check whether a school has taken any steps to deal with the problem – never mind assess the quality of those steps. Putting the issue of homophobic bullying on the agenda in just a handful of schools each year would not entail a disruption of the WSE process – it already entails sampling in the subject areas. However, for all schools to see a paragraph on findings on the matter in the reports when they come to be published – and schools do check the published reports – would make clear that homophobic bullying is an issue that is open to being checked and reported on. That would be a low-cost way to provoke schools to be sure their house was in order before a WSE team announced their imminent arrival. And it would show some joined-up administration in the Department of Education.

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Here is the full text of the question and answer:

1271. Deputy Ruairí Quinn Information Zoom asked the Minister for Education and Science Information Zoom the information available to him since the second report on homophobic bullying in schools was published on the number of whole school evaluations conducted in second level schools, Youthreach centres, Traveller training centres and in special schools in which inspectors have explicitly identified problems with homophobic bullying; the number of schools in which adequate and effective policies and practices are in place to deal with homophobic bullying; the number of schools in which inspectors recommended the school should make improvements or introduce effective policies to tackle homophobic bullying. [34428/09]

Collapse Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): Information Zoom As the Deputy is aware the board of management of each school is required to prepare a code of behaviour in accordance with the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. My Department further requires each school to have in place a policy which includes specific measures to deal with bullying behaviour, within the framework of an overall school code of behaviour and discipline. Such a code, developed through consultation with the whole school community and properly implemented, can be the most influential measure in countering bullying behaviour in schools.

My Department has issued guidelines as an aid to schools in devising measures to prevent and deal with instances of bullying behaviour and to increase awareness among school management authorities of their responsibilities in this regard. These guidelines were drawn up following consultation with representatives of school management, teachers and parents, and are sufficiently flexible to allow each school authority to adapt them to suit the particular needs of their school. My Department has also been working with the Gay Lesbian and Equality Network (GLEN) on the development of guidance material for school leaders in supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual students in second-level school. “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students in Post-Primary Schools: Guidance for Principals and School Leaders” produced in association with the education partners and published jointly by GLEN and my Department, will be launched next week [by Minister of State Sean Haughey TD] and circulated to schools.

As part of a whole-school evaluation each school’s code of behaviour is requested and reviewed by the inspection team, along with other key school policy documents. The extent to which the policy is in line with the Department’s published Guidelines on Countering Bullying is considered. If a school does not have a legally required policy, inspectors will recommend that the school’s management address this as a matter of priority. In addition, where policies are found not to be in line with Department guidelines a policy review is recommended. This advice is given orally to the staff of the school and the board of management, as appropriate, and included in the published report of the inspection.

The review of anti-bullying policy during a WSE does not focus explicitly on any single category of bullying or harassment such as homophobic bullying. The WSE reports published by my Department in 2008, and 2009 to date, have not explicitly identified problems with homophobic bullying, nor have school policies and practices to deal with such behaviour in individual schools been identified by inspectors as causes for concern. The reports for the period, therefore, do not make specific recommendations to schools regarding improving approaches to tackling homophobic bullying.

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1. WorldbyStorm - October 10, 2009

I’ve found it hugely striking how ‘gay’ as a term has become endemic in schools as well, certainly since the mid-1990s. I think you’re correct that there is a different approach about homophobic language as distinct from other – phobic language. I also think you’re correct that the WSE is an obvious means of firstly discovering more about this problem and about attempting to shift people to remedy it – or ameliorate it in the short term.

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2. Niall - October 11, 2009

Has anybody ever seen any of the Hillary Duff ads that air in the US? They’re pretty hilarious. Nothing stops kids from using terms as an insult better than sanctimonious campaigns designed by committee.

I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot of point in attempting to remove homophobic language from our lexicon. It’s the ‘in’ insult right now, and probably will be until some other form of insult catches on. We’re better putting in place better resources for kids who are experiencing bullying, whatever form it takes. There seems to be a belief that teachers need special training so that they can be more sensitive to homophobia and that’s probably true, but these same teachers probably aren’t particularly sensitive to issues like height, weight, hair colour and the like all of which can lead to bullying that is equally horrifying.

When I look back at my days in secondary school, it’s easy to see how the casual use of homophobic insults would have made things extremely difficult for any of the kids in my year who were gay, but that said, the kids who got it worst weren’t gay. The kid with the bright red hair and a lisp and the Jehovah’s Witness with the English accent probably got it worse than anybody. What was disturbing was that while teachers knew better than to insult pupils when it came to matters like race or sexual orientation, they still thought it was funny to occassionally slag off kids for being short, having red hair or having an English accent. It was considered harmless. Now of course, whatever reason your peers had for picking on you, homophobic insults were considered the projectile of choice, but I’m not sure that the bullying victims would have felt a whole lot better if they were being called nigger, or knacker instead of faggot.

Since I’m remembering my school days, I figure I’ll post the following excerpt from “The Killing Grounds”.

Well you get it for being different
And you get it for being black
Get it for being chicken
And you get it for fighting back
You get it for being big and fat
Get it for being small
Oh those who get it get it and get it
For any damn thing at all

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WorldbyStorm - October 11, 2009

There’s something in what you say Niall, any mark of distinctiveness is a license for some to pounce. That said the more education there is for those in a position to exert some authority the more chance that such attacks can be minimised (they can’t be done away with entirely, I suspect, there’s always as with where I went to school the confrontations outside the bike sheds, or on the way home from school in lanes or such like.. which actually makes me think that sometimes when you’re 14 the safest place is either home or the classroom).

As to the effects of this all, I know 40 year olds who are still unable to entirely reconcile past bullying in school.

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Hugh Green - October 12, 2009

I’m not at all familiar with the education system here, but I’d suggest that homophobic bullying needs to be treated differently to other forms of bullying. A lot of instances of serious bullying need to be resolved with parental involvement, but there are lots of parents who mistreat their children on account of their sexuality, and many who find it hard to come to terms with the fact that their child may be gay. I know of one case in which a child approached his teachers because his mother was subjecting him to awful abuse on this score. A school’s policy on homophobic bullying needs to be part of a more general framework on how matters relating to children’s sexuality are to be treated. It hardly needs emphasising that an institution governed by the Catholic church may run into difficulties on this score.

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3. Niall - October 11, 2009

Oops. Apparently I misremembered the name of that poem. It’s ‘Back in the Playground Blues’ and not ‘The Killing Grounds’. I think.

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4. It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a ... Weapon? | the Bezaleel - October 12, 2009

[...] Dept Education and homophobic bullying « The Cedar Lounge Revolution [...]

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5. If you were the Minister? « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - December 28, 2009

[...] of gay students in our schools (in the Equal Status Act) has not led to it ending — nor as I posted recently, did it lead to any action to deal with the problem. Permitting the unprescribed sale of condoms [...]

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