Don’t get in a Binary Bind: Supporting non-binary and gender diverse pupils in school

Some academics like to point out the obvious. For instance, studies have shown that schools are strongly binary institutions in a strongly binary society (Bragg et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2020). Most toilet, washing and changing facilities are designated for male and female use and the majority of legal documents we use, whether in the public or private sector, ask us to identify as either male or female. 

Whilst this is absolutely fine for the majority of us, it can lead to anxiety and distress amongst those not wishing to identify as either male or female; namely non-binary people. Importantly, this does not necessarily make them transgender in the sense that they are a boy who wants to be a girl or vice versa. Some view themselves as agender (having no gender), others as having aspects of both and, occasionally, a minority might see themselves as gender fluid (going from one to the other) (Monro, 2019). 

In the UK, the Department for Education (DfE) states that, ‘While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support’ (DfE, 2021).

Furthermore, the NHS advises that young people’s exploration of different gender identities is quite common and that, for some, this continues into later childhood and adolescence (NHS, 2021).

How do non-binary and gender diverse pupils feel about school?

Researchers have found that binary gender demarcations simultaneously make non-binary pupils feel invisible and hypervisible in schools (Shuster and Lamont, 2020; Paechter, Toft & Carlile, 2021). Pupils feel invisible because they are a minority often bypassed by the binary world, but then  stand out as an oddity if they are open about their identity.

In a recent study, non-binary and gender diverse pupils have suggested that they do not feel particularly well  supported by schools and are often subjected to bullying (Bower-Brown, Zadeh & Jadva, 2021). Other studies have reported that LGBTQ+ pupils who did not feel supported by teachers were four times more likely to leave education early than those who felt they had good support (Smith et al., 2014).

Supporting non-binary and gender diverse pupils

A partnership of educational organisations, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the Chartered College of Teaching, the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the National Governance Association (NGA), have offered unofficial guidance on the issues discussed here (ASCL et al., 2022; Walker, 2022). However, this is not sanctioned by the DfE and is contested by some (White, 2022).

Bearing in mind the confusion surrounding this issue, particularly the conflict between political opinion and sparse official advice, how should we be ensuring these pupils are happy and successful at school?  Here are some basic ideas: 

  • Staff training. Schools should offer training on dealing with these issues (in alignment with current DfE advice). Sessions could include definitions of gender identities, how to speak to pupils about them and what to do if a pupil identifies as non-binary or gender diverse. It is worth noting, however, that DfE guidance says teachers are not required to answer personal questions asked by pupils about gender identity (DfE, 2021). If you are uncomfortable dealing with gender diversity, discuss with your school on how to handle questions about it should they arise.
  • Know your pupils. This would apply to pupils in general, including an understanding of your classes’ social, cultural and religious demographics, but also whether any pupils are  non-binary or gender diverse. On the back of this, you might want to consider – with colleagues – how you support these pupils in your subject area.
  • Be empathetic. The research above suggests it takes some confidence for non-binary pupils to inform teachers, peers or family that they do not wish to be seen as male or female. The last thing you want to do is cause additional worry or upset through cynicism or dismissiveness. I had one colleague – in the past – who thinks, ‘The whole thing is a stupid fad.’
  • Be conscious of the language you are using, especially pronouns. Language expresses our views and opinions on all kinds of issues, including others’ identity. Pronouns are important here as a non-binary pupil may object to being called ‘he’ or ‘she’ regardless of their legal gender or biological sex. Many prefer ‘they’. Use the terms they are comfortable with. A number of pupils I have taught also prefer to be called by gender neutral names, such as Alex, Taylor or Jordan. You should not, however, over worry about making mistakes. It happens – simply apologise. You can still use ‘he’ and ‘she’ for everyone else, of course; this is not a case of ‘political correctness gone mad’.
  • Be wary of dividing groups by gender. In class, you might want to consider avoiding a boy-girl seating plan, splitting groups into boy-girl teams for quizzes or making non-subject specific comparisons. This could cause distress for non-binary pupils. However, physical education is clearly an exception; guidance should be sought from the various sporting bodies of the activities covered in lessons. If there is no specific guidance, then use a common sense approach. This applies to aspects of relationships and sex education (RSE) too.
  • Have an inclusive uniform policy. A non-binary pupil may choose to wear a gender neutral uniform. This is less of a headache than it seems as the vast majority of schools now allow pupils to wear similar uniforms so long as they adhere to the overall standards of the school. Trousers, shirts, blazers and ties seemed to be favoured by most non-binary pupils. It doesn’t mean getting rid of skirts etc. Just have reasonable adjustments. 
  • Consider unisex toilets and changing facilities. This can be difficult in schools without the space, but non-binary and gender diverse pupils often appreciate a gender neutral place to go to the toilet or to change. My own school’s new building has a number of gender neutral toilets and changing cubicles for pupils to use to the side of the main separated toilets. However, it is important that you still have separate male and female toilets and that non-binary pupils do not use the toilet that is not designated for their birth gender or biological sex. Unisex toilets should also be single occupancy, not communal like the binary toilets. It is worth noting that sleeping accommodation on residential trips is another example where single sex provision is a legal right. Moreover, unisex sleeping arrangements raise issues surrounding consent and data protection, especially if parents are informed (see ASCL et al., 2022, for example). The DfE is in the process of producing new guidance on this.
  • Consider the curriculum. Although an overhaul of the curriculum would be unnecessary and most non-binary children will not expect us to change how we teach literature, history or any subject that references gender in anyway, it might be worth signposting non-binary identification in relevant personal, social and health lessons (PSHE), sessions covering equality and diversity as well as RSE – it is worth pointing out, however, that gender identity and sexuality are different things. Non-binary gender identification is not recognised by the 2010 Equality Act, but that does not mean they should be ignored.  
  • Inform pastoral leads. There is a debate over whether these issues should be seen as a pastoral issue or safeguarding issue (see O’Sullivan, 2021; Sex Matters, 2021, respectively). Essentially, if a non-binary or gender diverse pupil is in danger or struggling to cope, then you should follow safeguarding policies. Other professionals are better placed to deal with the more serious ramifications of gender dysphoria (NHS, 2020). 
  • Remember that male and female designations still matter. The vast majority of our pupils are not non-binary or gender diverse, and that might include pupils with different sexualities. Positive male and female characteristics should still be celebrated without recourse to exclusive stereotypes. Moreover, efforts to get more girls into STEM or boys into reading, should not be bypassed through fear of missing people out or offending those that do not identify as either. Gender also still matters for data, results analysis and reporting of external results (gender diverse children are still their biological sex on role). 

Last thoughts

There are, of course, objections to schools supporting non-binary and gender diverse pupils. Various newspaper columnists, politicians and organisations feel this is more evidence of ‘identity politics’ interfering with the natural order of things. 

Nevertheless, most teaching unions, professional bodies, universities and local authorities feel that support and guidance should be available to these LGBTQ+  pupils, including those who are non-binary and gender diverse (see NEU, 2019; Tomlinson-Gray, 2022; UCL, 2021; HfL, 2022, for example).

References

  • ASCL, Chartered College of Teaching, CST, ISBL, NAHT & NGA (2022). Guidance for maintained schools and academies in England on provision for transgender pupils: https://bit.ly/3IjtWny
  • Bower-Brown, S., Zadeh, S. & Jadva, V. (2021). Binary-trans, non-binary and gender-questioning adolescents’ experiences in UK schools: https://bit.ly/3BLzEv3 
  • Bragg S., Renold E., Ringrose J., & Jackson C (2018). More than boy, girl, male, female: https://bit.ly/3WC0Vr2 
  • DfE (2021). Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum: https://bit.ly/3QqskZU 
  • HfL (2022). Equality and diversity – LGBT: https://bit.ly/3zG3bDI 
  • Jones, T., Smith, E., Ward, R., Dixon, J., Hillier, L., & Mitchell, A. (2016). School experiences of transgender and gender diverse students in Australia: https://bit.ly/2HVSNjC 
  • Monro S. (2019). Non-binary and genderqueer: https://bit.ly/2HVSNjC 
  • NHS (2021). Think your child might be trans or non-binary?: https://bit.ly/3BK8AfI 
  • NHS (2020). Signs – gender dysphoria: https://bit.ly/3oX0VmK 
  • NEU (2019). Supporting trans and gender questioning students: https://bit.ly/3P6mUSV
  • O’Sullivan, H. (2021, June 31). Responsibilities towards students identifying as non-binary: https://bit.ly/3dd6paf  
  • Paechter, C., Toft, A. & Carlile, A. (2021). Non-binary young people and schools: pedagogical insights from a small-scale interview study: https://bit.ly/3vJh9DW 
  • Sex Matters (2022, April 11). Most secondary schools now have trans-identified pupils: Sex Matters’ new survey: https://bit.ly/3p1saMU 
  • Tomlinson-Gray, D. (2022). Why we need an LGBT+inclusive curriculum and how we can do it: https://bit.ly/3p0jqH2 
  • Shuster, S. M., and E. Lamont. 2020. “Sticks and stones break our bones, and words are damaging.” In The Emergence of Trans: Cultures, Politics and Everyday Lives, edited by R. Pearce, I. Moon, K. Gupta, and D. L. Steinberg. London: Routledge.
  • Smith, E., Jones, T., Ward, R., Dixon, J., Mitchell, A. and Hillier, L. (2014). From Blues to Rainbows: https://bit.ly/3p0GV2y 
  • UCL (2021, June 14). Recognising and including LGBTQ+ identities in language teaching: https://bit.ly/3Qof0Fr
  • Walker, A. (2022, November 11). Guidance on supporting trans children in schools: 7 key findings: https://bit.ly/3jJkhfQ
  • White, R. (2022, November 26). Why new ‘unofficial’ transgender pupil guidance is not fit for purpose: https://bit.ly/3Gzlq2C

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