Education in Northern Ireland

The right to education is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. This right can be neither abridged nor denied on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGB&T) young people are a vulnerable group in our society. The Department of Education has an obligation to ensure that these young people are not discriminated against and to actively promote equality of opportunity for them.

Educational structures in Northern Ireland are inherently and systemically heterosexist institutions. By heterosexist we mean that to be heterosexual is not simply considered as more common than same-sex attracted but as normal, correct and morally superior.

Discussing issues of sexual orientation is still considered taboo in many schools and therefore school staff are not trained to deal with the issues that occur. They do not intervene when they hear homophobic language because they either agree with the sentiment or do not think that it is their role to intervene. Teachers, despite the circulation of guidance, do not have the capacity to deal with homophobia in schools and a contributing factor to this is that they are unsure how they are supposed to respond.

Recognising Northern Ireland’s past is one of the many reasons why public authorities are required to show due regard to the necessity of promoting equality of opportunity and yet this does not apply to schools.

If we are to break the cycle of prejudice, inequality and discrimination in our society we must recognise that young people require education on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The current policy of supplying schools with guidance is not working. The uptake in schools is poor and the lack of regulation is allowing incorrect, insensitive and sometimes dangerous messages to be portrayed as fact.

Section 75

Schools are not considered public authorities under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. However, inquiries with the Department of Education and the Equality Commission have shown that there was no argument made as to why schools should be exempt from these obligations. In spite of the many advancements in equality laws since 1998 including; Civil Partnerships, Goods, Facilities and Services regulations, adoption rights, hate crimes legislation and employment regulations, there has been no in-depth review of how equality provisions are to be extended to schools.

We now face the absurd anomaly that an LGB&T sixteen-year old with a part time job is better protected in their place of employment than in their place of education. This, obviously, has serious consequences for academic aspirations of LGB&T youth.

Absent a credible, reasonable and evidence-based policy to the contrary, the Department of Education must immediately begin a review to determine how the equality provisions, which are fundamental tenets of the new democratic system in Northern Ireland, can be extended to schools so that they protect some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.


Homophobic bullying is one of the most pervasive, violent and dehumanising forms of bullying. People who are perceived as LGB hear homophobic language every day in school, they are subjected to physical violence and receive death threats and they suffer in silence, usually without telling adults out of fear of being outed and out of fear of how the adult will react.

The lack of recognition, inclusion and respect, which should be afforded to all young people and yet is systemically denied to LGB&T young people, leads to numerous and diverse negative impacts on the lives of young people.

a)      98% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people hear homophobic language in school and that 30% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people report that adults are responsible for homophobic incidents in their school.[1]


b)      65.3% of young gay and bisexual men reported that they were subjected to bullying language and behaviour while they were at school.[2]


c)       Of those who were bullied 42.4% were diagnosed with a mental illness[3]


d)      Of those who reported homophobia from school staff 60.7% were referred for professional help.[4]


e)      Of those who were bullied 84.5% considered suicide, 35.3% attempted suicide and 41.2% self-harmed.[5]


f)       69% of young Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people who reported being the victim of homophobic bullying dropped out of education early and 65% attained less than they expected.[6]


g)      For young people who have been the victims of homophobic bullying, 92% have experienced verbal bullying, 41% have experienced physical bullying and 17% received death threats.[7]


h)      Young people who identify as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual are –

  • At least 2.5 times more likely to self-harm
  • 5 time more likely to be medicated for depression
  • At least 3 times more likely to attempt suicide
  • 20 times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder

than their heterosexual counterparts[8]

Although schools are required to have a policy to deal with bullying, there is no requirement that they should reference homophobic bullying in this policy.

We recognise that the enumeration of vulnerable groups is the most effective way of promoting their inclusion in the outworking of any policy.

When bullying is homophobic in nature it must be called homophobic. When it is sectarian it must be called sectarian and when it is racist it must be called racist etc. It is only by calling these things by their names that the root causes of homophobia, racism and all other forms of prejudice can be effectively tackled.

Research from Stonewall shows that LGB pupils who go to schools which state that homophobic bullying is wrong are nearly 70% more likely to feel safe at school.[9]

Pupils who go to schools where teachers respond to homophobic incidents are three times as likely to feel that their school is an accepting, tolerant place where they feel welcome.[10]

Pupils who are taught positively about lesbian and gay issues are 60% more likely to be happy at school and 40% more likely to feel respected.[11]

The position of The Rainbow Project is that:

  • All schools must have an anti-bullying policy which enumerates all forms of bullying
  • The policy must state why these forms of bullying are unacceptable in school
  • All school staff must be trained to recognise and react appropriately to all forms of bullying
  • All pupils must be taught about the effects that bullying can have and specifically name how specific forms of bullying effect vulnerable minority groups.


Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)

There is currently no statutory requirement to discuss sexual orientation in RSE and the non-statutory guidance is weak, prejudiced and incorrect.

Sexual Orientation is placed between sections on Sexually Transmitted Infections and Sexual Abuse. Instead of sexual orientation being a mainstreamed part of the guidance it is slotted in with the other controversial and negative topics.

The guidance states that:

‘In the transition from childhood to adulthood, some adolescents experience strong emotional attachments and feelings towards people of their own sex. Many move on to form heterosexual relationships; some remain permanently homosexual or bisexual.’

Without presenting any evidence to support this bizarre claim, the guidance promotes the heterosexist notion that young people experiencing same-sex attraction, if they are lucky, will go on to be straight and that an unfortunate minority will ‘remain permanently homosexual or bisexual.’

Should a teacher be confronted with a scenario where a student has come out to them and they look for information in the non-statutory guidance to assist them, the only thing they are told to say to the child is that there is a high chance they will grow out of their feelings.

This not only delegitimises a young person’s ability to recognise their own emotions but tells them that what they are feeling is a problem which, hopefully, will fade over time.

The guidance goes on to state that: ‘ Pupils should be reminded that a male under 17 years cannot legally consent to any homosexual act.’

Not only is this false information and has been since the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 came into force, it is also unclear as to why it is mentioned in this section of the guidance. The section on sexual orientation is 100 words long and instead of providing any useful information for teachers or young people, 28 words are taken up with false information which should have been included in the section on the age of consent.

The section on sexual orientation ends ironically with:

‘Teachers, whatever their own views, should counteract prejudice and support the development of self-esteem and a sense of responsibility in every pupil.’

After using the prejudiced and incorrect assumption that heterosexuality is something to which one can and should aspire it is entirely incongruent that teachers should be expected to know how to counteract prejudice when the only information they have been given is rooted in prejudice.

The Department must immediately remedy the curriculum to ensure that it reflects both the Department of Education and the Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment’s obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. The Department must also assess from which source it received and disseminated this erroneous information and ensure that any other aspects of the curriculum influenced by this source are reviewed and corrected.

The Education Equality Project

The Rainbow Project has been working on its education equality project since July. We have been educating young people about homophobic bullying and anti-gay prejudice and we have also been training teachers in how to recognise and deal with issues of homophobia within their schools.

The Rainbow Project recognises how this training and education is beneficial in giving school staff the capacity and confidence they need to be able to respond to prejudice in a reasoned and responsible manner. With clear guidance and direction from the Department, CCEA, Boards of Governors and Head Teachers, our information can assist in fostering a school community based on respect, dignity and equality; where no child is an outsider.

The Rainbow Project will work with the Department and all other relevant bodies in order to make our schools a place where everyone feels safe, welcome and an equal member of the school community.

To access our Education Service please contact Jemma Irwin on 02890319030 Email

Please click on the appropriate link  for more information about:

Education Services   Education Equality Project   Homophobic Bullying in Schools

[1] The School Report – Stonewall (2006)

[2] Out on Your Own – The Rainbow Project (2006)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The ShOUT Report – Youthnet (2003)

[7] The School Report – Stonewall (2006)

[8] The ShOUT Report – Youthnet (2003)

[9] The School Report – Stonewall (2006)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.