Free article: Supporting transgender students

Published: Monday, 28 January 2019

Many schools now have students who identify with the opposite sex they were assigned at birth. Sam Garner gives a brief overview of what schools can do to support students. 

Summary

  • Ensure that the school culture is one of acceptance and understanding.
  • Transgender students can suffer with other conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Guidance encourages the use of ‘affirmation not confirmation’ in student support.

Knowing how to support our transgender students in school can be confusing both legally and emotionally. What is clear is that this is an area of growth and debate, and we are not currently providing the best therapeutic and medical support. The psychological and medical world is catching up, but long-term research is limited, or even non-existent. It’s also sometimes difficult to have discussions with offending or causing distress.

Current situation

In 2017/2018, the Gender Identity Service, part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, received 2,519 referrals to their service. Referrals have increased in the last few years, but the size of the increase each year is decreasing. However, there is still a waiting list. The majority of referrals are for young people who are assigned female at birth but who don’t identify as female.

There is limited definitive research on co-morbidity and longer-term outcomes. Commonly transgender students suffer with other conditions such as anxiety and depression. Some studies show that the majority of young people de-transition and recognise they are gay or lesbian. Tavistock reports that the majority of young people they see do not go on to have physical treatment.

There is a link between Autistic Spectrum Disorder and identifying as transgender in that there is a prevalence of transgender people with ASD. It has been acknowledged by some clinicians, and experienced by some parents, that there is an appeal for young people with ASD to identify as transgender. It is a welcoming community with clear guidelines on how to behave and present yourself is useful. Again, studies vary in the statistics produced around this.

Whilst all this research is continuing, and, hopefully, definitive guidance being produced for schools, what do we do in the meantime?

Practical measures

In terms of supporting pupils in school emotionally, all the guidance points towards an ‘affirmation not confirmation’ approach. Affirmative support is better for mental health purposes and that is the ultimate aim: to best support the mental well-being of our students.

Allow the student to take on the name, pronouns and dress of the gender they identify with.

Ensure that the school culture is one of acceptance and understanding. This is to ensure that there are good outcomes for the mental health of the student irrespective of which gender they associate with longer term. We all know that bullying has a massive impact on the mental health of young people and transgender students, like other students who are ‘different’, are easy targets and vulnerable. We must ensure that this is prevented and addressed.

Legal scenarios

The Equality Act 2010 does list gender reassignment as a protected characteristic. Legally, however, a person must gain a gender recognition certificate (GRC) to be recognised as a different sex from that assigned at birth. In order to obtain the GRC you must have transitioned for at least two years and have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. This is currently being discussed politically and debate is taking place to allow people to self-identify as the opposite sex to make gaining the GRC (or whatever it would be called) only an administrative exercise. While many organisations accept self-identification, it is not current law.

Premises

Some transgender guidance for schools states that, because gender reassignment is a protected characteristic, transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom and changing facilities of the sex they identify with. However, we also have to consider that biological sex and religion are also protected characteristics under The Equality Act 2010. One does not trump the other. Again, no legal case has set precedence for this.

Most schools I speak to have discussions with the transgender student how best to support them logistically. They are mostly happy to use the disabled and multi-access facilities but are likely to feel uncomfortable using their identified gender facilities. Some schools will have students from certain religions who are not allowed to change with a person of the opposite biological sex present. I have seen guidance that suggests religious people can be given separate changing facilities, but I think this issue needs further discussion and clarification.

Whilst some schools are making all toilets unisex and or open to the corridors, I am not a fan of this approach for the mental well-being of students. Many students need privacy to deal with menstrual issues. Students with digestive issues will also be more susceptible to ridicule in open or unisex toilets.

Support

It is also prudent to help the transgender student, and their family, gain access to therapeutic support. Familial support is very important to the transgender student and they may also be struggling with the affirmation not confirmation approach. Often, we can feel that supporting transgender students carries the same risks as supporting self-harming students: we are frightened of saying the wrong thing and making things worse. This can lead to staff trying to ‘pass on the problem’ and absolving ourselves of responsibilities. Remember, these pupils are more likely to be suffering from anxiety or depression, so talking with the school counsellor or other pastoral staff can be helpful.

Sporting events

In terms of sporting events some guidance recommends that students should compete alongside those of the gender they identify with. Whilst this is perfectly acceptable with younger children, there will be issues for older children where biologically male students will likely have a superior physical advantage over biologically female students. Do consider this and follow the guidance laid out by the relevant sporting body.

Outside help

Some schools are inviting outside organisations in to discuss LGBT with students which is a fantastic idea. However, do ask to see their presentation beforehand and be prepared for many students to have questions and need support afterwards.

Further information

As a school you need to read all the guidance available, those listed here are just a starting point. Check out your local authority guidance. Have discussions within your school as to your policy and procedure for supporting transgender students.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.garnereducation.co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (www.rebalanceprogramme.com).

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