This guest blog from Stonewall discusses why it’s important that schools have a particular focus on LGBT pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, and the role governors can play in ensuring this happens.
In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, schools and colleges have had to find new ways of working: for most, school life now looks very different to how it looked just a few months ago. For many children and young people in particular, these unprecedented times have brought with them a great deal of uncertainty and worry. Protecting children and young people’s mental health is more important now than ever, and governors have an essential role to play. For children and young people who are lesbian, gay, bi or trans (LGBT), there are particular considerations that governors should know about.
What are schools’ responsibilities?
The Department for Education’s (DFE) guidance on mental health and behaviour in schools makes it clear that schools have a central role to play in enabling their pupils to be resilient and to support good mental health and wellbeing. Ofsted inspectors will also judge the extent to which schools help learners ‘know how to keep physically and mentally healthy’ (Education Inspection Framework 2019), and the DFE’s statutory guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) emphasises the importance of mental wellbeing as part of health education.
Governors have an essential role to play: under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, governing bodies must promote the well-being of all pupils at the school, which includes LGBT pupils.
What do LGBT young people experience?
It’s important to know that being LGBT is not a mental health condition. However, a young person who experiences bullying from others because they are LGBT, or because other people think they are LGBT, may be more likely to experience increased anxiety or to develop low self-esteem. Stonewall’s research shows that 45% of LGBT young people have experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic (HBT) bullying at school, while 40% have been the target of HBT abuse online, placing LGBT young people at significant risk of poorer mental health outcomes (Stonewall School Report, 2017). For young people who aren’t ‘out’, or haven’t told anyone that they’re LGBT, worries about how people might react can significantly increase the amount of anxiety they experience.
In this context, LGBT young people may be more likely to engage in self-harming behaviours or attempt to complete suicide than young people who are not LGBT. 45% of trans young people aged 11-18 have tried to complete suicide and 84% have self-harmed, while 22% of lesbian, gay and bi (LGB) young people have tried to complete suicide and 61% have self-harmed (Stonewall School Report, 2017).
What’s more, we know some LGBT young people experience poorer mental health outcomes than others. For example, 87% of disabled LGBT young people have thought about suicide, compared to seven in ten non-disabled LGBT young people (73 per cent). Black, Asian and minority ethnicity LGBT pupils are somewhat more likely to have thought about suicide than white LGBT pupils (79 per cent compared to 74 per cent). Experiencing multiple forms of discrimination – for example, a Black trans young person experiencing racism and transphobia – can place significant strain on a young person’s mental health and increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“I used to like school but now I have no friends and I lack motivation to go. I will sometimes have panic attacks before and during school.” Brook, 12, secondary school (North West)
How can governors help?
The best LGBT-inclusive schools create a whole school culture where difference is celebrated, which supports positive mental health outcomes for all children and young people. In an environment like this, learners know they have a right to express who they are and a responsibility to respect others. They feel empowered to report bullying when they experience it or see it happening, and trust that incidents will be dealt with effectively by staff. Governors are essential in nurturing a whole school culture of celebrating difference.
Develop staff confidence
Staff should be encouraged to develop their confidence in supporting LGBT children and young people and tackling HBT bullying. Governors can work with senior leadership to identify how confident staff currently feel and assess training needs. Stonewall are developing a range of e-learning modules, with online training currently available for secondary schools and colleges on Improving LGBT Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing.
Monitor rates of HBT bullying
All schools should record incidents of HBT bullying as three discrete categories (homophobic, biphobic and transphobic), and regularly report to governors on the number of incidents. Governors can support staff to identify trends in the data and to develop an action plan to reduce the number of incidents over time. Stonewall’s Getting Started toolkits for primary and secondary schools have lots of useful tips for preventing and tackling HBT bullying, including suggested wording for anti-bullying policies and a handy action planning template.
Survey staff and students
School surveys can also be a great way of finding out what learners and staff think works well in the school and what needs to be improved. Governors can support senior leaders to include questions in school surveys about learners’ experiences of HBT bullying and other aspects of LGBT inclusion.
Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE)
Primary schools are enabled and encouraged to incorporate LGBT content into their relationships education provision and, for primary schools who choose to teach it, sex education provision. Secondary schools are required to include LGBT content in their RSHE provision.
Quality RSHE supports young people to stay safe and make healthy, informed choices – yet 40% of LGBT young people are never taught anything about LGBT issues at school. In schools where pupils are taught about LGBT issues, LGBT pupils are less likely to experience homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying than in schools where pupils don’t learn about LGBT issues (43 per cent compared to 49 per cent). LGBT pupils in these schools are also more likely to report feeling safe, welcome and happy at school.
Stonewall’s research shows that LGBT young people are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours, such as meeting up with somebody they’ve previously only talked to online, or using dating apps when they are underage (Stonewall School Report, 2017). Often, these risk-taking behaviours happen because LGBT young people want to meet other people who are LGBT, but don’t have access to a safe space where they can meet people their own age, such as a youth group. It’s crucial that LGBT young people have access to comprehensive RSHE that is relevant to the relationships and experiences they may go on to have, supporting them to recognise risk and make safe choices.
Governors can support staff and senior leadership in assessing the school’s RSHE provision to determine how LGBT-inclusive it currently is, and can coach staff to develop an action plan for improving LGBT inclusion in RSHE. Look out for upcoming Stonewall resources on implementing LGBT-inclusive RSHE, available to download for free this winter. A good place to look for other recommended resources is Annexe B to the DFE’s statutory guidance on RSHE which recommends helpful resources, including from Stonewall and others. Governors should keep track of changes made and ask for regular updates, helping staff identify areas for continuous improvement in RSHE as well as celebrating successes.
Knowing where to start
All children and young people deserve to be accepted without exception at school. There are lots of free resources available from LGBT organisations to help governors, school leaders, teachers and all education professionals feel confident supporting LGBT children and young people. A good place to start is Stonewall’s free guide, An Introduction to Supporting LGBT Children and Young People. Our expert Education and Youth Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and are always happy to help.
Download a free set of questions to ask at your next governing board meeting:
 Research by the NHS shows that 3% of 11-16 year olds in general have attempted to complete suicide or have self-harmed (although this figure rises to 25% for 11-16 year olds with a diagnosed mental health disorder) [Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017].