Education staff will voice their concerns today (Tuesday) about the lack of meaningful, informed discussion surrounding gender identity in schools. As more pupils are raising issues around their gender identity, there is a concern that schools and colleges are not adequately prepared to support and educate young people.
Julia Neal, the deputy director of a sixth form in Devon, proposed the motion to be debated at ATL's annual conference, because she is concerned about schools' preparedness. She said:
"We are not addressing the issues effectively in many schools and colleges. I want to emphasize the need for specialist training for senior managers and governors. Leaders need to be prepared to guide staff and support young people."
Three ATL members tell their stories to highlight the issues staff and students are facing.
DAN: "If a child is struggling because they're not getting enough food or sleep, there are clear support mechanisms in place. But there's nothing in place to support a child who's having gender issues. Just a knee-jerk reaction."
Dan is a teacher in a school in Newcastle. Dan is trans and was recently informed by a colleague that a student was facing issues because of gender identity.
"Staff panicked. There was a knee-jerk reaction to treat it as a safe-guarding issue, which is completely inappropriate. Staff want to help but they're unprepared so feel nervous. There is no procedure in place. Teachers don't know what advice and information they should provide.
"I advised which websites they should tell the student to use. But they had to be unblocked. School systems are so outdated. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are all classed as inappropriate words by school firewalls, when they're not!
"The sex and relationships education (SRE) textbook was also inadequate. It classed trans as an issue of sexuality not gender. This is a prevalent misconception that should not be reinforced in education. The textbook was from a reputable publisher and not cheap! Teachers ended up creating their own Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) materials. But what about schools without teachers who are well informed?
"This is a serious problem. We have a great pastoral structure in place but trans issues are a blind-spot and we're going to be caught out. With heightened publicity young people are feeling safe to speak out. But the majority of staff in my school admit they wouldn't know how to react. This isn't fair for teachers or pupils.
"Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month is a really positive way of ensuring students are educated about these issues, even if it is for one or two days a year. In Newcastle we have a network of staff from different schools who really push LGBT History Month and we all share resources, which makes the preparation less time-consuming."
JOHN: "I'm an LGBT activist and really thought I had inclusiveness nailed but even I was unprepared!"
John is a member of ATL's equality and diversity committee and the head of an inclusion centre at an academy in the West Country. John became concerned when a student and their mother came to him for support.
"What struck me was how concerned the young person's mum was to do the right thing for her child. She was confused about the right steps to take and came to me for advice, clearly desperate to be supportive and constructive. But I didn't even know! Luckily I could contact ATL's lead equalities officer who suggested I signpost them to 'Mermaids'. I very quickly got back to them but the delay wasn't ideal. I was backpedalling when I wanted to be a source of support and reassurance. It makes you feel inadequate. I worry that my stumped reaction could have reinforced their fears - the feeling of being 'unique; 'I'm the only one'.
"The school I work in is very inclusive. The head creates a progressive ethos. We have Diversity Role Models visit us to work with our young people, staff have been trained to challenge homophobia, we display role models' photos on the wall and include LGB role models in our work.
"But there's a gaping hole with trans issues. LGB has been at the forefront - bringing the 'T' in is the next step. Homophobia is high profile but transphobia has less visibility.
"I think role models are very important. I am an openly gay teacher and want to be a positive role model. I think if there aren't role models then you need to go out and find them. We need to embed trans role models and discussions. Staff are eager for guidance. Schools need support to get the language right and put signposting in place. Schools need to be prepared. Otherwise teachers will not be able to give the level of support they want to and young people and parents will be left feeling more alone."
JILL: "There's an attitude of ignore it and it'll go away. The excuses have to be removed.'
Jill was an assistant head teacher at an independent school when she transitioned.
"When I transitioned I was tolerated, partially because I was essential to the functioning of the school and also because I was politically astute about the situation - I did everything I could to minimise the impact and prevent controversy. I provided training to senior staff and the deputy head then trained all staff. The problem was this was reduced to statutory Equality Act guidance, with no real explanation of LGBT or protected characteristics. Any LGBT colleagues and pupils were really no better off. For example it didn't stop some colleagues making jokes to each other and to pupils.
"Some schools are doing a really great job. They've made trans their 'thing'. But by and large there is an attitude of, 'If we leave it alone, it'll go away, there's no one like that here, this doesn't apply to us.' The vast majority of schools think they can ignore it.
"The fact SRE isn't compulsory is a big issue. SRE is often well meaning but not well informed. Trans is usually not covered and when it is, it is often confused as an issue of sexuality not gender. Trans should be addressed and not just in a statutory sense, for example noting inclusion in the Equality Act, but with SRE.
"Trusted information needs to be available for young people. There is so much negativity and misconceptions in the press and online. Very few schools support LGBT History Month, which would be a positive move. Staff need training delivered by trans specialist groups. Crucially Department for Education support is needed. Without their direction schools are too able to ignore it. The excuses have to be removed and education must provide an understanding of this protected group. We can't keep producing generations of misinformed children."
Bernard Reed OBE, trustee of the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES), campaign of the month on ATL's Safer Schools Network, said:
"Schools and colleges are experiencing an explosion of trans cases, for which they have usually made no advanced preparation. Although there is growing recognition that trans pupils and staff need - and are entitled to - understanding, respect, protection and support. Recently 7 schools contacted us in one day. GIRES provides over 50 training sessions per year, of which more than half are for educational establishments. Our focus is on training staff on how to feel really confident in supporting trans people as learners or colleagues."
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said:
"We welcome increased discussion around gender identity and want to support young people, but that requires well-trained teachers, delivering well-informed and inclusive Sex and Relationships Education. As education staff we want to support those young people to feel confident and to get the expert help and advice they need to flourish. Let's not leave young people to educate themselves on these issues via misconceptions and bigotry so often found in the media and online. Trans issues present yet more impetus on the call for Nicky Morgan to reverse her decision and make SRE mandatory for all students."
*The teacher's names have been changed to protect their privacy and the privacy of the young people they have discussed.
Note to editors:
This release relates to the motion below that will be debated at ATL's Conference:
- Challenging gender identity prejudice in education
29 EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
THAT Conference deplores the paucity of meaningful and informed discussion of gender identity and trans issues within schools and colleges. Young people with questions about or an interest in gender identity have very few reliable sources with which to counter the factually incorrect, prejudicial and abusive messages that often prevail in social media, traditional media and on the internet.
- Conference therefore calls upon the Executive Committee to:
(i) provide information to help members support young people to explore identity issues in a safe environment
(ii) campaign for specific funding for staff to be trained by specialist organisations to support their students
(iii) lobby Government to ensure that all schools and colleges provide specific training for all leadership teams and governors in supporting all their staff
(iv) promote Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month (LGBT HM), using it to challenge gender stereotypes and celebrate trans role models.
Proposer: Julia Neal, Equality and Diversity Committee Seconder: Nic Preston, Equality and Diversity Committee
- The Association of Teachers and Lecturers' Annual Conference will be held at ACC in Liverpool from Monday 4 until Wednesday 6 April 2016.
- ATL is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
- ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice, and to work with government and employers to defend its members' pay, conditions and career development.
- ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.
Notes to editors
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.