How schools can support transgender children

The number of transgender children in schools is growing and many leaders are struggling to find the right way to support these students. But Lisa Jarmin finds that best practice is much simpler than many imagine
23rd February 2018, 12:00am
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Lisa Jarmin


How schools can support transgender children

I was in Year 4 when I first told my teacher that I was a boy in a girl's body," recalls Danny Elliott*. "She laughed it off and said I'd feel different when I was older. I repeated my belief to other teachers while I was still at primary school, but none of them took me seriously."

Danny is now 15 and living as a boy. Things did not get easier for him at secondary school: they got worse.

"When I was 12, I felt I'd rather die than stay as I was, so my mum discussed it with my form tutor and head of year. They reluctantly agreed to refer to me and treat me as a boy, but never explained this to the other pupils. Some members of staff seemed to enjoy calling me "she" and joked about it.

"Bullies made my life hell. A group of boys ripped my shirt open to try to expose my breasts. The boys were given detentions, but although staff seemed sympathetic, I was also told 'you draw attention to yourself - you can't expect people not to notice'. The fact that it was sexual assault and transphobic bullying seemed to escape them.

"My mum pulled me out of school the next day. I've been educated at home ever since."

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for a school to discriminate against a pupil because of their race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender reassignment or pregnancy. But schools have always had a moral and ethical obligation to respect the children under their care and the choices they make about who they are.

Did that always happen pre-2010? The statistics would suggest not. Since the Act, there has been a surge in the numbers of transgender students, a rise attributed by most to the combination of having the legal support to be "out" as a transgender person and a growth in the visibility of transgender people in society.

In 2009-10, just 97 UK pupils were referred to the Gender Identity Development Service, compared to 1,419 in 2015-16: a rise of 1,362 per cent.

Does every school get their response right at the moment? It's a mixed picture: some do, but the reasons why many do not are in urgent need of redress.

Using correct terminology

Let's be clear: a lack of acceptance and support for transgender people is a society issue, not just a school issue. And at the most basic level, getting the terminology right can be a struggle for many.

So, to avoid confusion:

* Gender dysphoria - A mismatch between a person's biological sex and gender identity.

* Transgender - Someone whose gender differs from their birth sex.

* Transsexual - Previously used interchangeably with transgender, but now rejected by some members of the transgender community. More often used to describe someone who has gone through gender reassignment surgery, but transgender is still the more accepted term.

* Gender non-binary - Gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine and can be a combination of the two or neither. Also known as genderqueer.

* Genderfluid - Someone who identifies as having no fixed gender. Their gender identity can vary over time.

* Cisgender - This relates to a person whose sense of gender identity corresponds to their birth sex.

This is not a prescriptive list - you should always ask an individual the terms they prefer to use in relation to themselves and if there are any terms that they reject or do not identify with. But these are the terms that cause confusion, particularly in schools, according to those spoken to in this feature.

We also need to be clear that the assumptions made about being transgender are often false - despite their often being believed in schools. It's not a symptom of the modern world, nor a psychological disorder. Recent research suggests that there is a biological cause. The Endocrine Society's official position on this is that "there is a durable biological underpinning to gender identity that should be considered in policy determinations" - and that, while individuals may make certain choices based on factors within their lives, there is no evidence that these factors cause people to change their gender identity.

And finally, all this is not new. People who feel that they exist in the wrong body for their gender have been around as long as the concept of gender has existed. As for being able to transition, Roberta Cowell became the first known British person to undergo male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in 1951.

The experience of gender dysphoria is highly individual. Ex-teacher Joanne Porter* says she felt an overwhelming confusion at school.

"I didn't start to transition from male to female until I was in my 40s, but my earliest memories involve knowing that I was a girl and being confused as to why I was being given stereotypically male toys to play with," she says. "I identified with a character from Enid Blyton's Famous Five books: Georgina, who would only answer to George and who became angry and upset if anyone refused to acknowledge her as a boy. I remember reading those books and thinking that I was like her, but the other way around.

"Of course, nobody accepted it. It was the 1960s and teachers had a no-nonsense attitude to that sort of thing. I had to live my whole life knowing that I was somebody else until I realised that transitioning was a possibility."

Danny describes a certainty of things not being right.

"I always felt that I was a boy," he says. "I just didn't know how to put it into words until I was about eight years old. I couldn't work out why nobody could see it as clearly as I could."

Do schools always fulfil their duty to children like Danny? Although these pupils are now protected by the law, some UK schools have been slow to acknowledge their responsibilities toward transgender and non-binary pupils.

"My schools got it wrong at every turn," says Danny. "If you say you feel like this, you should be taken seriously from the start, however old you are. And whatever agreement you come to with staff should be respected by all and explained to other pupils. Finally, there needs to be a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy with serious consequences to protect LGBT pupils."

Headteachers who are leading the way on supporting transgender children in their schools agree with Danny and lament the fact that not every school is up to speed.

"There is still much work to be done," says Stuart Worden, headteacher at The Brit School in Croydon.

Worden's school is renowned for its inclusive environment and supportive LGBT community - but, he says, the approaches that seem normal to his school are not yet ubiquitous across education.

"Schools struggle because many teachers are still uncomfortable discussing gender honestly and openly with their pupils. This creates a climate of fear," he says. "Gender needs to be on the curriculum. The media is open to it and so are young people - so we should be, too."

Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, a large support group for gender-diverse and transgender children and their families, agrees with Worden.

"Many schools are not conforming to the Equality Act 2010," she says. "Transgender and non-binary children are covered by the gender reassignment clause in this act, from the moment that they disclose that they feel that they are in the wrong body for their gender - medical diagnosis is not a requirement for it to apply."

'This is about a child's identity'

For schools, this means that as soon as any pupil discloses their gender dysphoria to a member of staff and requests a gender preference, all staff involved with that pupil must treat them as the gender that they identify as and use their pronoun of choice.

But in many schools, this simple change is still not happening.

"Recently we had to get the police involved because a young student was being regularly misgendered by his tutor." says Green.

"The tutor dismissed it until he was informed that it counted as a hate crime. The matter has now been resolved by the police, but in the meantime, the student was off [school] with anxiety and depression for two weeks. This damage to their mental health was unnecessary and completely avoidable. This is why the law exists and why we must stick to it."

Worden says that this is more important than just being legally compliant.

"This is about a child's identity," he explains. "Nothing is more important to children and teenagers than their identity, and to take away from it is to deny that it exists."

Where schools do get it right, the experience for transgender pupils can be extremely positive.

Diane Summerhayes, parent of transgender pupil Nel could not be more impressed with the way that her son's school has dealt with his transition.

"I first met with the head in May 2017, following Nel's disclosure that he was a boy in a girl's body," she says. "I explained that Nel was due to start counselling with a view to transitioning during summer 2018 prior to starting high school. The response from them was brilliant, asking how they could support Nel and what they needed to do."

After Nel's first counselling session, he decided he wanted to transition prior to the end of Year 5, in July 2017.

"School worked with us to identify how and when to tell staff and happily accommodated Nel's request for the students in his year group to be told while he was at a counselling session," says Summerhayes. "It was agreed that Nel could use the disabled access toilet before progressing to the boys' toilet in Year 6. Not happy with the label of 'disabled', the head had the name of these facilities changed to 'accessible' toilet the next day. Nel now happily uses the boys' toilets, getting changed in the accessible toilets for PE."

Yet even when schools do a good job, parents can be problematic. There was a recent case in the Isle of Wight in which parents threatened to take their son's primary school to tribunal after a child who wished to change gender from boy to girl was allowed to wear a dress to school.

In Nel's case, there were some issues with parents, too, but the school was able to protect Nel from this and deal with the problem.

"There have been some issues with students and parents, which have been dealt with swiftly and appropriately at all times," says Summerhayes. "I cannot express enough how fantastic the whole experience has been for Nel, and this has only been made possible by the ongoing support from his school."

What's clear from Nel's experience with his school is that the lines of communication between his family, school staff and pupils and parents were open at all times. An older transgender pupil whose school worked closely with Mermaids during her transition says getting this basic process right is crucial.

"My school listened," she says. "That was the most important thing. They listened to me, my parents and to Mermaids. This meant that on the first day going into school as myself, I knew that my school was a safe space. I knew that my teachers had been trained to deal with any issues, so I could just get on with being myself. I am so proud of how far I've come and the grades I achieved in my GCSEs and I know that it was only possible because my school got it right."

With clear communication lines established, it is then about getting attitude and culture right, not necessarily creating policies around specifics or practicalities. Gerry Robinson, co-headteacher at Woodside High School in London, says it is about being a diverse school that values that diversity, whatever it may be. It's about not making transgender students different, but making any difference simply part of the school fabric.

"When we had a student transition last year, it was not a dramatic upheaval for our school, but only because we had already spent years talking to staff, students, parents, carers and friends of the school about our core values. We told staff of his new name, pronoun and his expressed preference as to how he wished the school community to respond. Staff set the tone and students followed suit."

And much of what a school should do in policy terms is what they should be doing anyway, says Robinson.

"Many of us will remember terms such as 'chairman' or 'headmistress' being commonly used. Those terms are now seen as outdated and society has transitioned to more inclusive terminology: chair and head. At Woodside, we have dropped unnecessarily gendered terms such as 'head girl' and 'head boy' and use 'head prefect' instead. Our uniform is gender-neutral, as is our staff dress code."

'Focus on the child'

Consider also not separating boys and girls for PE sessions where able and unnecessarily splitting genders for class quizzes. This is especially important for gender fluid or non-binary pupils.

Of particular concern to many schools, though, are toilet arrangements. Worden says what to do about toilets is the most common question asked of him by heads seeking help with supporting transgender students.

He believes it should be a non-issue - and Green agrees.

"If there are no neutral facilities, if someone identifies as a girl they should be using the girls' toilets and if someone uses a boy they should use the boys' toilets," says Green. "If they'd feel more comfortable using separate facilities, then let them, but they should not be forced to use a disabled toilet. And if anyone complains about the child in question using the toilets for their own gender, maybe the disabled toilet could be made accessible for the complainants to use instead."

Another thing schools worry about is who informs the school community about what is happening and when. Again, that's relatively simple, says Green: you discuss it with the student and their parents to find a solution with which they are comfortable.

Such questions, says Worden, show how schools overcomplicate things too much.

"We need to remember that the children are the most important part of our schools," he says. "If you focus on the child, how to care for them and what is best for them, it is obvious what you should do."

However, some believe this is much easier for some schools than others.

"What if you work at a single sex school or even a faith school?" says one anonymous teacher.

I looked into the legalities, and it transpires that these are not the issues that we assume them to be.

"Many single-sex schools have handled this situation with aplomb," says Green. "The Equality Act states that reasonable adjustments can be made to accommodate transgender and gender non-binary pupils. If the pupil decides to stay at their current single-sex school, that school will not lose its single-sex status. Likewise, it is illegal for a single-sex school to turn down a transgender pupil for a place on that basis."

That's great news for pupils in single-sex education who want to transition but don't want to leave their friends behind - and also for those who would prefer to leave and join a school to be with pupils of their own gender.

Likewise, transgender pupils attending faith schools are also protected by the Equality Act, whatever the faith and belief of the community may be.

In fact, the Church of England recently published guidelines about this for its schools, promoting "dignity for all" and stating that their pupils should be "free to explore the possibilities of who they might be", including gender identity.

"But what if the parents do not support the transgender student?" asks another teacher. "We can't refer to children by the name or pronoun of their choice or treat them as their chosen gender without a parent's permission - our hands are tied."

It's not as simple as that, says Matthew Wolton, a partner at Knights Solicitors and an expert in education law.

"In such instances, a school would have to weigh up the child's human rights against the concept of 'parental responsibility'," he explains.

"'Gillick Competency' - a test of when a child is mature enough to make decisions - complicates the matter and states that 'parental right yields to the child's right to make their own decisions when they reach a sufficient understanding and intelligence to be capable of making up their own mind on the matter requiring decision'.

"[Usually] we would expect that schools would follow the wishes of those with parental responsibility for a child, even if that was contrary to the wishes of that child."

However, he says that this should not be the end point of discussion.

"Schools should endeavour to be a conduit for mediation between the child and the parents. They also have a duty to monitor and support the welfare of their pupils, and if they felt a pupil was at danger - be it physical, emotional or mental - they should take appropriate steps, which could mean involving social services."

Extending support

Worden stresses that in all of the above, seeing the school's role as being confined to school premises is naïve and wrong. Support should extend beyond the school gates, he insists. He reveals how one student who was accepted in school had an awful time outside of it.

"She never turned up for school on time," he says. "She explained that she had to shave every morning and that she was badly bullied by people on the street on the journey to school, so when she arrived she'd have to clean the spit from the bullies off of her face and clothing. We could do nothing about the abuse because it was from the general public, not members of our school, but we arranged for her to start the school day at 10am instead. That worked for her."

He adds: "When you think from the child's perspective and keep in mind that they are at your school to gain an education, what must be done becomes clear."

Robinson agrees: "School is a place to learn. This cannot happen if they are unable to be themselves, if they feel ashamed, or if they need to hide who they are."

That quote is not just applicable for transgender students, of course: the same goes for every student.

And the lessons from schools that are successfully supporting transgender students is exactly that: treat these students as you would any other.

If your culture is right, if your attitudes are right, then it is not about policies but about people. If you simply respond to the individual needs of the child, then everything else falls into place so that experiences like Danny's are never repeated.

"The only thing that matters is the child," urges Worden. "There's nothing to be afraid of. The only thing we should fear is doing nothing."

*Not their real name

Lisa Jarmin is an early years teacher and freelance journalist. She tweets @LisaJarmin

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