Until around five years ago, gender dysphoria, where a person experiences a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity, was a little-known condition which few schools had ever encountered. Because of the stigma surrounding it, if mentioned at all, it was discussed in hushed tones and the handful of teenagers who opted to undergo gender reassignment would often move schools during the process, to avoid bullying. Since 2013 however, the NHS’s only facility for children experiencing gender dysphoria, GIDS, the Gender Identity Development Service, based in North London and Leeds has seen a six-fold increase in the number of youngsters aged 3 to 18 being referred to them from 314 in 2012/13 to over 2000 last year.
Experts are split on what has triggered this huge spike, some attributing it to the promotion of conversation on transgender issues in schools that encourages children to question their identity. Others claim that the growing openness and acceptance of the topic has allowed children with ‘real’ gender problems to explore their options in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Some mental health professionals even believe that gender dysphoria may be symptomatic of conditions like schizophrenia rather than because a child has actually been ‘born into the wrong body.’
Whatever the cause, however, it has become an increasingly hot topic, with boarding and single sex schools facing particular challenges as they try to support pupils through what can be a traumatic process. A 2014 survey by Pace, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender mental health charity, found that 48 per cent of transgender youths had attempted suicide, while 59 per cent of them had self-harmed.
Co-ed Brighton College, East Sussex has always been at the forefront of the debate, partly because of its liberal atmosphere and the town’s extensive LGBGT community. In 2016 following discussions with a transgender pupil, the college scrapped the rigid demarcation between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ uniforms, with positive results.
‘Our approach to transgender pupils is simply an extension of the pastoral care we provide for all the children at Brighton,’ explained headmaster Richard Cairns. ‘One girl, supported by loving, thoughtful parents, told us that she identified as male outside school and found having to wear a traditional girls’ uniform at school profoundly upsetting. I wanted a solution that preserved our traditions whilst supporting that small number of children whose happiness required flexibility on our part.’
‘So I abolished the notion of boys’ uniform and girls’ uniform, rebadging them as ‘trouser’ uniform and ‘skirt’ uniform. Each teenager, with parental permission, may choose one or the other. Thus far, four pupils have changed to a trouser uniform and two to a skirt uniform. All are so much happier and all have found renewed success, indeed, one has just left us to go to Cambridge.’
St Paul’s Girls’ School, London also has a gender-neutral dress code and allows pupils to use the name of their choice, without reference to gender, as does another London school, James Allen’s Girls’, where trousers have been a uniform option for 20 years.
Despite widespread ignorance of the law, the 2010 Equality Act bans discrimination on grounds of gender. Pupils at single-sex schools are allowed to remain there even after undergoing gender reassignment without the school losing its single-sex status, although it can select on gender when pupils are admitted initially. With so much publicity surrounding the issue, most independent schools now have policies in place to support transgender pupils. Loughborough High School has introduced gender-neutral toilets and changing facilities, as has Malvern College, Worcestershire which has also earmarked living accommodation suitable for children with gender dysphoria.
‘So far, we’ve not had any transgender pupils,’ said senior deputy head Sarah Angus, ‘but we’ve given specialist training to all our staff involved in pastoral care. Our policies and documentation refer to gender identity so our pupils understand that Malvern recognises this could be an issue. With such long delays in accessing specialist mental health support from outside, however, my main worry is the difficulty in getting timely help through the overstretched CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.) Within the school itself though, we’re determined to have the whole framework in place so any transgender pupils can behave in the way they feel most comfortable.’
Despite growing awareness of the issue, not all schools have had an easy ride. Several whom I approached when researching this article begged not to be named. Three reported angry parents complaining that they had not been made aware of transgender children in their school, despite the obvious confidentiality issues involved in publicising such sensitive information.
When confronted with this question herself, Caroline Jordan, headmistress of Headington School, Oxford outlined the disturbing statistics of suicide attempts and self-harming, explaining, ‘With more than 1,000 girls in our care, our pastoral team at Headington deal with a wide range of issues every week which nobody would expect us to make public. Adolescence is a difficult time for us all, but for those young people growing up with dysphoria it can be unimaginably hard. We should be helping them all find the path in life that is right for them, not compartmentalising them.’
The Girls’ School Association believes children themselves are often far more tolerant of their classmates’ gender issues than their elders. ‘The common challenge for girls’ schools’ said GSA President Gwen Byrom, ‘is how they balance the fact that they teach predominantly girls – and are proud to do so – with the fact that they must, under the Equality Act respect the needs of those pupils who identify as boys or who may privately be experiencing gender confusion. Most of the difficulties are pragmatic, such as making sure you have appropriate toilet and changing provision. In my experience, young people themselves are remarkably relaxed and accepting of one another.’
This article was originally published in the SS18 issue of School House.