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Supporting trans and gender questioning students

Advice to help school and college staff support gender variant or questioning students in the educational environment. 

The term transgender, or more commonly now trans, is an umbrella term used to describe a person whose gender identity is not the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. 

Non-binary people are people who do not fall into the binary categories of man/woman or male/female. Non-binary people may feel they are not exclusively male or female, and may embody elements of both.

Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. A trans person can be gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or any other sexual orientation. You cannot tell if a person is trans just by looking at them; trans people do not look a certain way or come from any one background.

The word ‘transition’ describes the steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Every person’s transition is unique and will involve different things. There’s a lot of focus on medical transitions, but not all trans people want or can access hormone therapy and surgeries.

Someone’s transition may involve purely social aspects, such as telling friends, family and colleagues; dressing differently; and changing names, pronouns and official documents. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to transition. With more young people exploring their gender identity, the need for knowledge, experience and guidance in schools and colleges is crucial.

Creating a trans inclusive school/college

There are steps schools and colleges can take to create a more trans-friendly environment that will send a message of acknowledgement, respect and acceptance to all students.

Whole school or college approach

  • Do not assume you do not have any trans or non-binary students. Many trans or non-binary students are not out, and, because of a lack of knowledge of trans issues, students may not have the language to explain their feelings or identity.
  • Make sure the issue of LGBT+ equality is discussed in a staff meeting and that every staff member feels supported if they want to ask questions and increase their knowledge.
  • Acknowledge that there will be LGB and trans and non-binary people within the school community as students, parents, carers, staff and governors.
  • Ensure trans issues and transphobia are included within the school policy framework alongside LGB equality and sex equality.
  • Use the curriculum and activities such as assemblies to challenge stereotypes based on sex and gender identity.
  • Celebrate LGBT History Month, Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

In class

  • Do not use boy-girl seating. This increases stereotypes about gender and girls and boys, and it could cause distress for trans students and non-binary students.
  • Don’t split into boy-girl teams for sports or quizzes. Think actively about how to challenge gender stereotypes in your subject.
  • Keep up-to-date seating plans and registers for cover staff with preferred pronouns* and names.

* A student may choose to use different pronouns that are associated with their gender identity. For example, him/her/they. This should be accepted.

First approach by a pupil and/or their family asking for help

Please keep in mind when talking with a young trans person or their family that it is important to keep an open mind and to not say things that could appear to minimise or dismiss how they are feeling. 

It is  important that the young person’s gender identity is respected and the school should aim to be flexible and supportive. Let the young person express how they identify or need to express their gender in a conversation or in any other way they find comfortable. Care must be taken to find out what their needs are and how they want to proceed. Every young trans person is different. 

The parents/carers are also likely to need support so that they can work out how best to support their child and determine what pronouns, clothes and support might be most appropriate.

Things initially to discuss with the young person and their family may include the following:

  • Ask them simply ‘how can we best help you’?
  • Have they spoken to anyone else about their feelings or gender identity?
  • How do they wish to express their gender identity?
  • Which name and which pronouns do they wish to be known by/called at school or college?  (NB, this might differ from those used at home, if this is what the young person wants at that time.)

If they are looking to find medical help with their transition, then their GP is the first port of call. The GP should be able to refer the young person to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) so the young person or their family can have their questions answered.

Local LGBT+ or specific trans-focused youth groups are an excellent place to find local peer support for the young person and for families.

If continuing conversations with the pupil and family show that the pupil is intending to transition in school or college, then putting together an action plan is a good next step.

When putting together any transition plan, it cannot be overstated that it must be led by the needs of the pupil and the family, and the young person will have many good and practical ideas about what they would find helpful.

Planning and timing transition

In some cases, the school or college and young person’s family have adopted the approach of sending a letter out to the families of students or holding an assembly to let them know of this young person’s transition and a bit of basic information about trans issues. This should only be done if the young person and their family are comfortable with this idea. It is not a preferred option overall as it will immediately out the young person as trans, even when used as a means to increase awareness of trans issues.

Transitioning mid-term may produce certain challenges. There may be an increased chance of bullying and of increased stress on the young person’s mental health. It may also be challenging in terms of continuity of records and administration when the person starts using a new name (if they choose to).

Transitioning at the beginning of a new term or year is sometimes preferred as it gives breathing space for the pupil in the holiday break. Also, if they wish to come out publicly, it allows others to ask questions and begin to understand how the young person is feeling and how they identify. It also allows adequate time for records or admin to be brought in line, so there should be no confusion when the pupil starts back with a possible new name.

Changing schools/colleges or transitioning when moving from primary to secondary or from secondary to further education can also be a popular choice, as it gives the young person more chance of a positive new start at school or college. However, the person’s previous identity will be known by other young people who knew them in their previous school. 

Managing sensitive information

With a young person going through transition it is so important to support them and how they wish to express their gender identity.  

It is crucial that schools and colleges provide confidentiality in supporting trans students. In all other cases, the wishes of the pupil or student in respect of disclosure should be respected. Schools and colleges should ensure they discuss with students, and with their parents or carers, when it will be necessary to disclose trans children's legal names, for example when registering for exams and for medical record purposes.

Correct pronouns and new names should always be used out of respect, support and safety. If incorrect pronouns or an old name are used, it can sometimes lead to outing that person as trans within a school or college, which can then lead to bullying and discrimination.

Even when discussing the pupil between staff, the student’s correct and current name (the one they wish to be addressed by) should be used at all times and their gender identity issues should not come into conversation unless it is relevant. If a conversation needs to take place where the pupil’s gender identity does need to be discussed, then it should be done so in a location that is private and confidential. It only takes one overheard conversation to start a chain of events that can have a detrimental effect on a young person’s transition and early life. 

Toilets and changing rooms

This is the most commonly asked question regarding trans people.

Ask the young person what would make them most comfortable. If what they want is realistic and possible, then go with it. 

Not all young trans people will immediately want to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity. They may wish to use another facility separate from others because of anxiety issues connected with gender dysphoria. For this reason, and because some students may identify as non-binary or neither male or female, there should be gender-neutral changing and toilet facilities available. It is not good practice to make all toilet facilities gender neutral however, because some students, especially girls, will prefer single-sex toilets.

The only thing regarding changing rooms that may cause a problem is if the only changing rooms available are open and do not have cubicles. This is due to issues about gender dysphoria mentioned above, and reactions from other students. In this case, the pupil can be offered alternative changing facilities. The young person should not be told that they must use the changing rooms that correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth. 

As regards uniform, a list of the school or college requirements covering clothes, shoes and hair, will suffice. It’s not good practice to make girls and boys wear different uniforms. A gender-neutral uniform policy allows all students to present themselves in a way that makes them comfortable and confident to access school/college life, but the uniform must be comfortable for girls’ bodies as well as boys.

Legal obligations on schools/colleges

Not only is there a professional and ethical obligation to support young trans and gender-questioning students in education, but there is a legal one too. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination of anyone with a protected characteristic. The protected characteristic of gender reassignment covers trans people.

To be protected from gender reassignment discrimination, you do not need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery. This is because changing your physiological or other gender attributes can be an entirely personal process rather than a medical one. You can be at any stage or part of a stage in the transition process – from proposing to reassign your gender to undergoing a process to reassign your gender or having completed it.

This means that students who want to use a new name, wear new clothes or ask for a new pronoun to be used are protected under the law, regardless of whether they have, or want to have, any medical treatment.

Schools and colleges must also consider gender reassignment when looking at their responsibilities under the Public Sector Equality Duty. This duty asks schools to proactively promote equality by thinking about their practice and changing it. 

Where can I find out more?

This is a short guide on how to support a trans or gender-questioning student in a school or college environment. Hopefully this information will help you to respond to the needs of a trans or gender-questioning child with professional confidence.

There are many more excellent resources available, from lesson plans that educate about transgender issues, to complete and very detailed school and college guidance documents put together by local authorities working in partnership with voluntary LGBT+ organisations.

There are also a number of voluntary organisations with experience that can provide schools and colleges with training and advice. 

You should obtain your LA policy and have a list of local LGBT+ youth groups.

Building a whole school/college ethos that is positive and inclusive

It is helpful to consider how your school or college is using the curriculum to develop positive attitudes to girls, boys and gender, but also to break down fixed stereotypes about gender. Breaking down narrow and limiting stereotypes about girls and boys helps every child and widens the life experiences and ambitions of both girls and boys.

It is important to differentiate between pupils who are trans, or questioning their identity, and children and young people who do not conform to stereotypes about gender. 

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