Supporting transgender pupils in independent schools

Cris Warren speaks to a parent worried about her trans daughter’s ambitions for a boarding school education and the educational consultant who says she has nothing to fear

“For want of a better phrase, we’ve been shopping around independent boarding schools, which is what every parent does, but for me, it was nerve wracking. I was, I hate to say it, a bit embarrassed – well, actually, not embarrassed, just I didn’t want us to be judged when the second thing you say is, my child was born male but identifies as female… you know when you can feel when people are like, ‘oh, here we go’ and rolling their eyes, even when they’re on the phone? But it hasn’t happened, there were even invitations to come and visit, I’ve been actually quite moved by how un-fazed people have been.”

“D’s” year six and currently state-educated daughter “B” was born male but has wholly identified as female since year four. “Actually, far longer than that. She was miserable at pre-school where they, gently, which sort of made it worse, refused to acknowledge what she was already feeling, that she was a girl not a boy.

Although B hasn’t been medically diagnosed “yet”, her mother says that she presented recognised signs of gender dysphoria, characterised by the NHS as the condition where a person “experiences a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity”, from an early age.

“At home she’s been fully a girl since, probably, about three years old. I’ve parted company with a couple of close friends over it and there were a few raised eyebrows at kindergarten. My father struggles, rather comically, but he makes an effort not to show it, otherwise it’s all very normal, which is all we want; she hates being the centre of attention, as much, I think, as she drove herself mad at times hating being what she isn’t.”

What gender dysphoria isn’t is a mental illness. But that sense of feeling ‘out of place’ or ‘in the wrong body’ common to the condition, and the attendant loneliness and confusion if they are not being supported, is very distressing and can lead to future problems with anxiety and depression.

I do worry about if she’ll fit in, where will she sleep and more so about what happens when puberty kicks in – “D”, parent

Gender dysphoria is not the same as transvestism or cross-dressing and is not related to sexual orientation. People with the condition may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual.

Not all young people with gender dysphoria or those who identify as non-binary or gender-variant will go on to seek treatment. Some may choose to be known by a gender-neutral name or to wear different clothes. However, most or all young trans people (and their families) will need some support or information as they grow up and develop.

Primary was far more supportive of B than kindergarten. By year four she was publicly and confidently identifying as a girl. D says: “They already had a gender-neutral toilet block and changing areas, so there wasn’t an issue there. In fact, she’s thrived at primary, I think it’s down to the fact that they (the school) didn’t make a big fuss over her, they just accepted who she says she is and got on with it. The worry now, of course, is that it’s time to move on so will that all change?”

At the end of year five, B’s parents began to investigate residential independent schools for her post-primary education, somewhere that will nurture and encourage her already established ‘gifted and talented’ passion for science and art. As educational criteria go, there are plenty of schools out there for her. Nonetheless, it seems like quite a bold step.

“She’s adamant she wants to be a boarder. I went to a girls’ boarding school, and she’s always asked me about it. I’m glad I went to one but, even so, it was a very tradition-based environment – not at all progressive. That was in the 90s, but it could have been the 30s.

“Times have changed, and we’re looking at co-ed schools which I think will be more progressive, but I do worry about if she’ll fit in, where will she sleep and more so about what happens when puberty kicks in – that’s something we’re starting to seek out advice on.”

Forward-thinking schools

Outside of the sector the impression of independent schools as being ‘establishment’ and entrenched in tradition is common – they are places that wouldn’t, intuitively, seem supportive of trans children.

“But I think the opposite is true. In my experience, they’re actually some of the most forward-thinking schools in the country,” says Cat Burton, chair of trustees for the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES), which have advised independent boarding schools across the UK about how to support gender-fluid pupils.

“There are legal obligations not to discriminate against trans children – in terms of toilet arrangements, facilities, accommodation and the evidence I’ve seen in boarding schools is that these are taken seriously and actioned. Co-educational schools, obviously have toilets for both sexes, sometimes even gender-neutral ones, too.

“It’s more of a challenge in a single sex school – especially if a child ends one term as a boy and returns as a girl or vice versa – but legally (The Equality Act 2010), they have every right to be in the school and, again, I’ve seen that schools have risen to the challenge”.

It’s more of a challenge in a single sex school […] but legally (The Equality Act 2010), they have every right to be in the school and, again, I’ve seen that schools have risen to the challenge – Cat Burton, GIRES

There have been some highly publicised moves towards gender neutrality in independent schools. Brighton College wore theirs on their sleeve when they adopted a gender-neutral uniform policy in 2016, as did St Paul’s Girls School in London, both with the enthusiastic backing of their pupils and generally positive – and well managed – press coverage.

Highgate School’s head, on the other hand, was pressured into making an apology to parents after announcing the implementation of gender-neutral toilets – much to the glee of the press.

Perhaps with the latter in mind, schools tend to keep their policies on gender in-house, rather than go public. “It’s the papers, some parents and perhaps some of the staff that need the benefit of education on the matter. The thing is, nowadays, it’s not an issue for 99% of the other children in a school if there are gender-fluid, trans kids in their cohort. They don’t care, they totally get it.”

Burton finds it heartening that, in the main, independent boarding schools are enlightened about the issue. “I would guess that schools that have the old, entrenched ideals about gender are the ones that don’t reach out to charities like us – so in that respect it’s difficult to comment on, but the schools we deal with come to us with the attitude already in place that they want to accept and support their trans pupils and take the view that their needs are paramount – and the most successful, effective way to do that is to not make a huge fuss about it.”

1 Comment
  • Clare Sender

    Another option for families who are in this position is to look at the growing online school sector. At our school – Minerva’s Virtual Academy it is very easy to support gender-fluid pupils. The online environment takes away many of the pressures that can be present in some of the more traditional schools. Our pupils are then able to relax into their learning and continue to enjoy their education.

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