Caroline Jordan, GSA: Including transgender pupils doesn’t mean we’re failing our girls

28 June 2016

Including trans pupils doesn’t mean we’re failing our girls

Caroline Jordan, The Guardian, 23 June 2016

As the country approaches a huge moment in its history we, as exponents of single-sex education, have found ourselves in the midst of our own mini-media storm this week. “Don’t call girls girls”“Girls can’t be girls”“Stop referring to pupils as ‘girls’” screamed the headlines, while the phone has been ringing off the hook at Headington, of which I am headteacher, with radio stations trying to persuade me to go on air to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile I am left wondering quite how a positive and important closed session at the Girls’ Schools Association summer briefing has sparked this reaction. Inevitably, I suppose, coverage has focused on how girls’ schools can adopt a gender-neutral stance and help transgender children. What do we call them? What about the toilets? Are we really offering a single-sex education?

I would argue that advocating the use of gender-neutral language when addressing a group of students in schools that may include a transgender child does not mean that I am somehow less committed to girls’ education. I am not claiming to have all the answers but one thing I am certain of is that we have a duty of care to each and every child, and that each and every one of those children will need different things from us.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a vital public debate and, for us as a sector, probably rather overdue. I would be the first to admit that many of us are still navigating largely uncharted waters when it comes to supporting transgender children in our schools and, yes, we probably will make mistakes along the way. I understand that journalists are just doing their jobs and these headlines sell papers. However, over the past few days I have been questioning what exactly my role in this is, and whether I am doing my job properly if I allow this trivialisation of such an important issue to go unchallenged.

This might be one of the first times that the press have really been asking how single-sex schools are supporting transgender children in their care but it is most definitely not the first time we as a sector have been talking about it. According to Dr Jay Stewart from Gendered Intelligence, this is an issue that affects 1%of young people, and many girls’ schools have had transgender children on roll for years. Our session last week was less about starting a discussion but more about sharing best practices and making sure that, in partnership with the child, the family and professional agencies, we are doing all we can to support the children in our care who might be struggling with this.

When it comes to transgender children in single-sex schools, the law at least is clear. The 2010 Equality Act states that “a girls’ school which permits a pupil who is undergoing gender reassignment after they adopt a male gender role would not lose its single sex status”. Moreover, while we can admit on the basis of gender, once a child is enrolled in a school we have a duty to support them without gender bias. A duty, I hasten to add, that we welcome and embrace.

I must confess to some surprise at a question that has been raised several times over the past few days, namely why schools aren’t making parents aware of transgender children in school. With more than 1,000 girls in our care, our pastoral team at Headington deal with a wide range of issues every week that nobody would expect us to make public. A recent survey by Pace, a mental health charity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, found that 48% of transgender people under the age of 26 had attempted suicide, which is terrifying. Adolescence is a difficult time for us all, but for those young people growing up with dysphoria it can be unimaginably hard. For every child uncomfortable with their gender and wishing to transition there are many others who are confused about their sexuality and, in the conflict of adolescence, we should be helping them all find the path in life that is right for them, not compartmentalising them.

At Headington we have always been proud to describe ourselves as a non-girly girls’ school – put simply, a place where girls find the courage and opportunity to try new things without the constraints of gender stereotypes. This has not changed and nor will it do so. More importantly, I truly believe that girls’ schools such as ours have the pastoral support structures to help transgender children through the transition better than any other type of school. The fact that many of these children choose to remain in girls’ schools after transition is testament to the nurturing and open environment that we promote – and I believe we should be rightly proud of that.

Caroline Jordan is the President of the Girls’ Schools Association (UK).