Skip to main content

Advice for schools on gender preferences and transitioning – how to navigate the issues

By SEC Newgate team
26 October 2021

By Alex McCready, Director – Head of Reputation & Privacy at Vardags and Guy Smith, SEC Newgate

Issues regarding gender preferences/neutrality re pupils and staff

It is clear schools play a huge role in child development, both in ensuring every young person reaches their academic potential, as well as enhancing healthy social skills. But obviously it does not stop there.

We know that education should also focus on building character and helping children learn values such as compassion, empathy, respect and integrity. During these formative years, the concept of identity also develops.  

One area that schools need to be conscious of are gender-related issues emerging during these formative years. As most teachers know, this can lead to bullying, often covertly, and in some cases blighting a child’s experience of school, their ability to enjoy, achieve, contribute and be healthy.

This is particularly acute in single sex education settings, which can sometimes compound issues like bullying. The following are possible issues that all schools should bear in mind, and address:

  • Young trans people are at greater risk of self-harm and suicide, owing to the confusion they experience in coming to terms with their own gender1
  • Almost half (45%) of lesbian, gay, bi and trans pupils experience bullying at school. Over two-thirds (64%) of this figure are trans pupils2
  • Currently, there is a lack of education surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, with more than three-quarters (77%) of children affirming that they have never learned about gender identity or the meaning of ‘trans’ at school3
  • When and in what situation should a school recognise a trans pupil’s desired pronouns and names, with 1 in 3 pupils reporting that schools are failing to do so currently4

It is also important to understand that this is as much a legal issue as it is a moral one. Under the Equality Act 2010, schools form one of the ‘public sector organisations’ that must fulfil their duty to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation. They must also advance equality of opportunity and promoting policies that influence good relations, inclusivity and diversity.

One of the Act’s “protected characteristics” is that of gender reassignment, which is widely defined to include individuals considering the process of gender reassignment. As such, it is not necessary for pupils to have physically undergone – or otherwise be undergoing – medical procedures for this legal obligation to be triggered.

Pupils transitioning

Care plans should be in place to support transitioning pupils, which could include:

  • An initial one-to-one conversation to demonstrate that their needs are being acknowledged, and to confirm the school’s support of their circumstances.
    • Asking the child what they think the school can do to support them in the process, as well as discussing:
      • What the school policy is on change of name/pronoun both during/following transition.x
      • How they would like to dress.
      • What sort of facilities (toilet/changing rooms) they would feel most comfortable using, bearing in mind the facilities available at the school.
    • Providing the student with pastoral contacts that they can use to confide in, as well as pointing them to other valuable resources, for example, gender-diverse charities like Mermaids
    • Ensuring any communication between teacher and pupil is kept strictly confidential, unless agreed otherwise or for safeguarding reasons.

An action plan should be implemented where the child can discuss:

  • How they feel about returning to school and any concerns they have; and
    • how the school can support them during this process.

Single sex schools

  • Single sex schools are not in and of themselves ‘discriminatory’ - the Equality Act 2010 allows for them.
    • However, trans children are not legally required to move schools upon transitioning; they are also within their rights to attend a school which matches their gender identity.
    • This has been a recent, prominent issue in the media, with a number of schools updating their admissions policies to admit children based on gender as opposed to biological sex.
    • Single sex schools should be prepared to receive inquiries from parents about the possibility of allowing students who are pre, during, and post gender reassignment.
    • Schools should also be prepared to face opposition– parents of children at the school who object to admitting transitioning pupils may well trigger lawsuits or take their children out of the school. Alternatively, the school could face reputational risks for refusing to admit a transitioning pupil.

Actions needed regarding gender preferences/neutrality by ensuring:

  • The school curriculum addresses trans issues and transphobia:
    • This includes participating in events such as LGBTQ+ History Month and Transgender Day of Visibility
  • School policy addresses trans issues and transphobia:
    • Effective anti-bullying policies that closely monitor incidents and appropriately deal with them.
    • Training staff to use language and pronouns carefully for example, avoiding binary terms like ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’.
    • Providing maximum confidentiality for discussions surrounding social identity to take place between students.
    • Ensuring stereotypes aren’t perpetuated through practices like girl-boy seating
  • School facilities take into consideration the possibility and need of trans pupils
    • It is unnecessary to make all facilities gender-neutral but it is advisable to have this option available for trans students. It may well be the case that some pupils, including trans students, feel uncomfortable using shared facilities such as Changing rooms and toilets
    • Consider a gender-neutral uniform, or at least referring to the uniform in a gender-neutral sense (for example not describing it as a girls’ or boys’ uniform).
  • Individualised support and action plans for trans pupils (see above)

Media handling

  • Ensure maximum protection of confidentiality.
  • Have a media team or officer on hand to deal with any media interest, should it arise.
    • Action plans often include the preparation of reactive holding statements – for example, what the school is doing to promote diversity and inclusivity amongst pupils and providing reasons for not having gender-neutral facilities.
  • Issue advice to trans pupils and their families should they be contacted for comment:
    • They should also be made aware of the press regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), to which they can make complaints of harassment or misconduct. Ofcom is the broadcast (radio/TV) equivalent.
  • Schools should also be aware of IPSO’s advice on trans children, which affirms that:
    • Pupils should not be approached or photographed at school without permission
    • Pupils should be able to attend school without press intrusion.
    • Any coverage of a child’s personal circumstances must be demonstrated to have exceptional public interest justifying coverage. Where this is the case, details of the child should be omitted for their safety and privacy.

Policies and communications with pupils/parents/staff

Balancing the needs of trans students with that of your community’s concerns is no simple task. Schools are uniquely placed, in this sense, to lead the conversation of trans issues and it is recommended that they foster an inclusive dialogue that does not incite a political conversation, nor singles out any single or group of students. The main priority should be the welfare and safety of all school children.

  • Addressing parent/stakeholder concerns and complaints:
    • Schools must be aware of the risk of parents objecting to transgender students and threatening lawsuits or removal of their child from the school.
    • In this sense, it is important to ensure maximum confidentiality of discussion between trans pupils and school staff, subject of course the school’s safeguarding duties. ‘Outing’ students could have serious repercussions including bullying from parents and students alike. As such, it is important to have care/action plans in place with trans students that aids discussion of how they would like to go about their transition or gender preference, e.g. would they like to tell a small group of people first,  
    • Schools should be encouraged to point uncomfortable parents or students to resources that educate them on trans issues and help them understand it. It is also important to point out that admitting and catering to the needs of trans students is a legal requirement that schools must respect It is also important to stress to the parent the vulnerability of the trans child in question, and the impact that such a complaint can have on them
    • Staff must receive training on these issues.