Schools should stop addressing pupils as 'girls' and 'boys', headteachers told

Former government mental-health champion told the Girls’ School Association conference it was important for “heteronormative assumption” not to filter down into schools

Eleanor Busby

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Schools should avoid addressing pupils as "girls" or "boys" as it can reinforce gender stereotypes, the former government mental health champion has said.

Speaking to heads at the Girls’ School Association (GSA) conference in Manchester, Natasha Devon said it was important for “heteronormative assumption” not to filter down into language and behaviour in schools.

Ms Devon, a Tes columnist and former government mental health champion, said: “To give you an example, I never walk into a room in an all girls’ school and say ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ because it is patronising, but also because there might be transgender people in the room.

“I don’t think it is useful to be constantly reminded of your gender all the time and all the stereotypes that go with it."

Mental health awareness

Speaking to Tes after her talk, Ms Devon said she will continue to encourage schools and heads to consider speaking to their pupils in a gender-neutral way.

She said: “You have go to think about this current generation which has grown up still in a culture where boys are told to 'man up' and girls are told they have got to be feminine, perfect, never get angry and be lady-like.

"By constantly reinforcing that, I think we can maybe stifle children a little bit.”

These negative gender stereotypes can potentially create anxiety or have an impact on a pupil's wellbeing, Ms Devon added.

Already some schools – like City of London Girls and Wimbledon Girls – are “leading the way” with policies that address girls as “pupils, students or people”, Ms Devon told Tes.    

'Respectful and mindful'

She admitted there has been some resistance – but it has never been from headteachers. And she thinks too often there has been a “misunderstanding” as to why schools are choosing to do this now.

Ms Devon said: “I think schools are places where there is a lot more awareness of unconscious bias and the way it can affect children.

"And one of the barriers identified by schools is that, when you use gendered language, that can sometimes have a whole heap of invisible expectation which can curtail students and stop them from reaching their full potential.

“I feel like that has been wilfully misunderstood by the mainstream and they have said ‘it’s all because of transgender people and we have to pander to them now and they are only a small proportion of the population.’

"I think it is incumbent on us to be respectful and mindful of the needs of transgender people but ultimately this is beneficial to everyone.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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