Teachers want unisex toilets for junior pupils
Call for gender-neutral bathrooms and uniforms in primary schools
Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30
'Gender-neutral' toilets for junior infant pupils as young as four should be considered to make certain children feel more comfortable in the classroom, primary school teachers have said.
And in a historic intervention, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) has now called for the introduction of unisex uniforms, which would cater for all sexes.
This would mean an end to the traditional gymslip, tartan kilt for girls, and v-neck jumpers and grey trousers for boys.
Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary of INTO, says people must accept we live in a changing society, and there must be recognition that some children have gender dysphoria.
This is a term used by psychologists to describe those who feel one's emotional identity as male or female to be opposite to one's biological sex.
His comments come five months after the Department of Education published 'Being LGBT in School', a practical guide for secondary teachers to tackle issues such as uniforms, transphobic language, as well as toilet and changing facilities.
The report notes that transgender students should be able to access facilities that "correspond with their gender identity".
Being able to access gender-neutral toilets, it says, may be particularly important.
In terms of uniforms, the report states that transgender students "should be permitted to wear a uniform that is consistent with their gender identity".
Now INTO is calling for specific state guidelines for primary teachers.
Mr Mullan says the rollout of a national policy on the issue is urgently needed.
He said any discussion should include whether gender-neutral toilets be made available for all pupils, from junior infants to sixth class, so that transgender pupils can use facilities which correspond with their gender identity. This may involve the removal of stereotyping circles, triangles and stick-figure signs from bathroom doors.
All relevant stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and school management, should be involved in drafting the new guidelines, which must be "age appropriate", he added.
Asked if he believed gender-neutral toilets should be introduced for all children, even those as young as four, Mr Mullan said: "It could certainly be considered, and studied, as part a set of guidelines developed for primary schools.
"Management, parents and teachers should be involved in that process, as well as other relevant groups. There are going to be challenges for the department.
"But if bathroom facilities in schools need to be expanded, extended, or upgraded then the department must be able to provide the funding for that to be done. Schools have to prepare children for accepting difference at various points along a transition.
"I think everything should be done from an early age."
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he stressed many primary teachers currently lack even basic knowledge on how to deal with gender identity issues in the classroom.
At present, many are forced to "make it up as they go along", he said, adding that it was a "process of trial and error.
"Teachers with transgender kids in their class have said the guidelines for second-level schools are absolutely wonderful.
"There are some excellent examples of really good practice and really good approaches".
A major area of concern for teachers, however, is the amount of time given to helping a transgender child and educating other pupils so that they "accept and accommodate" difference.
"Another issue is that there are far more supports for kids by way of guidance counselling at second level. There's absolutely nothing like that at primary level," Mr Mullan said. "The psychological services available to schools are only catching up on this issue now. Teachers want guidelines for primary schools, and the relevant support and advice on how to deal with these issues."
And in a landmark move, Mr Mullan added that in order to foster harmony and accommodate difference, traditional male/female attire should now be replaced with a "unisex" uniform.
"It just makes sense. It would mean boys and girls won't dress any differently. That is something that all schools need to look at. They should now be looking to introduce a school uniform which caters for all children."
Mr Mullan pointed out that at least one primary school in Ireland has already introduced a "unisex uniform" in an attempt to foster inclusivity among boys and girls in the classroom.
He also called for teachers to use the appropriate pronoun "he" and "she" for transgender pupils when asked to do so.
"I was speaking with a principal teacher who is waiting for the child to tell them which pronoun to use when addressing them," he added.
Broden Giambrone, the chief executive of Transgender Equality Network Ireland, said gender-neutral toilets would enable trans-children to use bathrooms consistent with their identity, and promote greater acceptance in the classroom.
In a statement, the Department of Education said that schools are encouraged to develop uniform policies in consultation with parents.