First studies in Australia into whether discrimination against homosexual high school students is affecting their education

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Most people can remember students who did not fit in at school - because they were fat, shy, hated sport, or because they were gay or lesbian.

Now the University of Sydney is conducting one of the first studies in Australia into whether discrimination against homosexual high school students is affecting their education.

"I can't actually say that homophobia makes kids get bad grades, even though I think that is possibly true", said Jacqueline Mikulsky, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education and Social Work. "What I can say is homophobia at the school level makes kids feel crappy about school and makes kids feel crappy about themselves while they are at school."

Ms Mikulsky says that research in the USA and the UK indicates that a disproportionate number of same-sex attracted students leave school before completing their final year.

But she said there has been very little work done to examine a potential link between homophobia at the school level and its effects on gay, lesbian and bisexual students' sense of academic achievement.

She is now conducting an online survey across Australia, targeting homosexual and bisexual students between the ages of 14 and 19.

"I want to know whether the students perceive the school environment as being homophobic or not and whether they perceive themselves as being academically successful," she said.

A pilot study has already been completed in Sydney, which indicated that homophobia was much worse in religious schools than non-religious ones.

"Those students who went to religious schools wrote about how they sensed that their teachers felt that homosexuality was wrong and they were having a difficult time coping"" she said.

Preliminary results also indicated that same-sex attracted students whose teachers are positive about homosexuality are more likely to feel that they belong at school and are less likely to miss school.

The vast majority of participants in the pilot study indicated they had heard homophobic slang, such as "fag", "poof" and "dyke" on school premises. Of those students, more than half reported that they heard that language either almost every day or several times per week. Of those who said that teachers or staff members were present when they heard homophobic slang at school, almost half said that the teacher either never or hardly ever intervened.

Although only a very small minority number of students reported seeing physical harassment or bullying at school that they believed was related to the sexual orientation of the victim, it is notable that these students were less likely to report feeling safe at school than the remainder of the sample.

Ms Mikulsky is currently placing advertisements in the mainstream and gay media for participants, who are encouraged to fill in the anonymous survey.

The survey runs until the end of the year.

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