Wednesday 1 March 2017

Schools told make uniform rules for transgender pupils

Katherine Donnelly and Adam Cullen

Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan
Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan

New school rules are on the way to help transgender pupils in areas such as uniforms and the use of changing rooms.

The position of children in single-sex schools who undergo a gender change - as they now may do from the age of 16 - was also a key talking point in discussions that opened yesterday in the Department of Education.

Some schools are already struggling to know how to handle the issue, which has come into sharper focus following the passage of recent gender recognition legislation.

There are no official figures for the percentage of the Irish population that is transgender, but internationally it is put at about 1pc, which in an average 600-pupil second-level school would amount to six students.

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan organised the meeting, attended by education partners such as teacher unions and school managers, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) support groups and other organisations.

The meeting, the first such involving the key groups in education, was hosted by Community and Social Support Minister Kevin Humphreys, who said the aim of the talks was to "ensure transgender children are treated the very same way as other students".

The Government would be examining changes to policy and legislation, the Labour Party TD said.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Humphreys said "more and more teachers" were raising the topic with various support groups across the country.

Mr Humphreys described yesterday’s discussions as positive and “well received” by all stakeholders invited, and said there was now “a need to discuss possible changes to policy and to education”.

The junior minister, who was involved in bringing the gender recognition legislation through the Oireachtas, said what was “important now is making sure information is available for teachers, identifying what issues are there and making sure that they are addressed”. 

He said that issues such as uniforms were “lightly touched upon” at the meeting and said one of the “biggest issues” raised was single-sex schools. 

Equal status legislation that gives single-sex schools an exemption to allow preference to pupils of a particular gender will come under scrutiny –  to examine the implications for a student who changes gender in the course of their schooling.

In advance of the talks, Ms O’Sullivan said that many of the issues would need to be figured out at school level, and it is likely that whatever finally emerges may be a mix of policy and guidelines.  She said young transgender people were a particularly vulnerable group and required appropriate support in all situations.

“The policies, practices and climate in schools can support and nurture young transgender students so that they do not feel isolated and alone.

“There are many areas that require discussion on this matter such as bullying, uniform issues, entry into or continuation in a single-sex school,” she said.

John Duffy, national network manager with Belong To, a national organisation for LGBT young people, called for the rollout of national policy on the issue.

“We haven’t discussed the finer details of how to tackle all the issues, such as uniforms and toilets. “But what we are clear on is that young trans people should be recognised in all facets of their identity and their lives.

“So preferably a young person identifying as a female should be able to use the female toilets, the same as any young woman,“ he added.

“That in itself will raise some issues but what we are sure on is the need for clear policy across the country and guidelines put in place, so there is a level playing field across all schools,” added Mr Duffy.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which had a representative at the meeting, welcomed the start of discussions.

A spokesperson said the commission “offered guidance to schools in relation to how they could facilitate transgender students and encouraged schools to proactively meet their responsibilities to avoid issues arising under either the Equal Status Acts or the Gender Recognition Act”.

Moira Leydon, education and research officer at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), said the issue was a “minority problem”.

“We are not aware of schools where this situation would be deemed as problematic. 

“On the contrary, when dealing with sensitive issues such as young people’s identity and their sense of well-being, they would go out of their way to ensure all pupils feel valued,

that their privacy is protected and that there are good anti-bullying policies in place,“ she said

Historic

Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward branded the meeting “historic” and called for research on the needs of transgender young people and how the education system can meet their needs.

National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) director, Clive Byrne said it was an increasing issue at primary level, with children as young as six identifying themselves as transgender.

A Department of Education spokesperson last night said the discussions offered a “holistic overview of the challenges facing transgender students”, with “a rich sharing of information concerning the new legislation and its possible impact on schools”.

Irish Independent

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