A group of the country’s leading girls’ schools has said they will not accept transgender pupils because it would “jeopardise” their status as single-sex institutions.
The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), which represents 23 private schools as well as two academies, updated its gender identity policy guidance document last month to include a new section on admissions.
It is rare for a group of single-sex schools to take a public position on the issue of admissions, and it could pave the way to others to follow suit.
The guidance states that GDST schools do not accept applications from pupils who are legally male, even if they identify as female.
Having an admissions policy based on “gender identity rather than the legal sex recorded on a student’s birth certificate would jeopardise the status of GDST schools as single-sex schools” under the Equality Act, it says.
A female pupil who begins to transition while already at school should be supported to remain at the school for as long as they wish to do so, it adds.
The guidance, first published in 2016, was updated and shared with member schools just before the Christmas break. The GDST said that they always keep their policies under review, adding that their latest guidance was drawn up “in collaboration with experts, teachers and students”.
It comes as headteachers urge the Government for national guidance on transgender issues to be published for schools, saying that education leaders are “struggling” to cope.
School leaders have said that in the absence of any official guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), they are left with advice from lobby groups as they decide how to react when a pupil identifies as the opposite gender.
Julie McCulloch of the Association of School of College Leaders (ASCL) said that as more and more children “come out” as transgender, heads are forced to wade into the fraught debate between biological sex and gender.
“It is a really big issue and the lack of formal guidance for schools is something that we are concerned about,” she told The Telegraph.
“This issue has grown quite rapidly over the past few years and it certainly feels like something that has become much more common. It is increasingly something that almost all schools are having to think about, but particularly single sex schools.”
Referrals to gender identity clinics on the increase
The number of young people in the UK being referred to gender identity clinics has increased 17-fold in the past decade, figures show.
Figures from the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), which is the NHS’s only facility for transgender children based at the Tavistock Centre in north London, show that 2,383 youngsters were referred in 2021-21, compared to 138 in 2010-11.
If a pupil announces to teachers that they wished to transition to the opposite gender, there are a number of issues a school might have to consider. First of all, they would need to decide what to tell the child’s parents, if anything at all. Then they would have to think about how to communicate the child’s new gender to their peers and teachers.
They may also consider whether the pupil should be allowed to use the toilets and changing rooms – as well as join sports teams – that match their new gender as opposed to their biological sex. This might be more complicated at a single-sex school where they do not have separate facilities for boys and girls.
Meanwhile, single sex schools face the additional dilemma of what to do if a pupil applies on the basis of the gender they identify with rather than their biological sex.
Ms McCulloch said that this is a “very difficult area” for a headteacher to deal with and added that ASCL members often “struggle” to know how to respond.
Schools are keen to do the right thing for all pupils
“They want to do the right thing for the child transitioning and also do the right thing for the other children in the school,” she explained.
“I think they are caught between different interest groups, between the needs and desires of parents and pupils in different situations. There is guidance from a whole range of organisations but most of them are from the position of that particular lobby group which is very difficult for schools to navigate.”
A number of different organisations publish their own advice for schools about what they should do if a pupil identifies as transgdender.
Stonewall, a charity which champions LGBTQ+ rights and works with 600 schools every year through its “School and Colleges Champions” membership programme, issues advice to schools on transgender issues.
It says that trans pupils should generally be allowed to use the toilets and changing rooms as well as join sports teams that “match their gender identity”, unless there are “reasonable safety concerns”.
It adds that children should be allowed to stay in whichever residential or boarding accommodation “they feel most comfortable in”. Citing the 2010 Equality Act, Stonewall also claims that a trans child is able to attend a single-sex school that matches their gender identity rather than their biological sex.
Guidance for primary schools
Equaliteach, a DfE-funded organisation, also publishes guidance for primary schools which says trans children should be referred to using their pronouns of choice which could be “she/her”, “he/him” or the non-binary options of “they/their” or “ze/zir”. Consistent use of the wrong pronouns “could be deemed harassment”, their document adds.
Schools should have a “non-gendered” school uniform list and trans children “have the right” to dress in the uniform they feel suits them best. Equaliteach goes further than Stonewall by telling schools it is an “act of discrimination” to refuse a child use of the toilets that match their gender identity, regardless of their biological sex.
They also say there is “no duty to inform the parents” if a child announces their new gender identity at school and add that the teacher must be careful not to “accidentally out” the child to their parents as being transgender.
In recent years, many schools have started to implement “gender neutral” toilets and facilities, acting on the advice of groups which say this is “best practise”.
Richard Cairns, headmaster at the £43,650-a-year Brighton College, said there are “two or three children at any one time” at his school seeking to transition to the opposite gender.
“We would always meet the parents and find sensible ways forward and that benefits everyone,” he said.
“It all comes down to making adjustments so that a young person feels happy in their own skin – the way they wear their hair, wearing trousers rather than a skirt, or sometimes they might want to be in a different house. There isn’t any particular agenda, it’s just treating a child as an individual”.
But some parents are “horrified” to learn about the way their children are being taught about gender identity at school, according to Stephanie Davies-Arai director of the group Transgender Trend which offers advice to families about youngsters’ sex and gender.
Gender neutral toilets
“We are increasingly contacted by parents who are really worried about the rights of girls,” she said. “More and more schools are putting in gender neutral toilets. We get a lot of parents getting in touch to say their daughter is refusing to go to the toilet.
“There are also complaints about sports teams – when someone who is biologically male is allowed to join in competitions with girls. Girls don’t feel they are able to complain because they don’t want to be painted as bigots so it is very hard for them to speak up.”
Ms Davies-Arai founded Transgender Trend in 2015 after becoming concered about the number of children being supported by schools and other institutions to transition to the opposite gender.
She said the other big issue is children transitioning “behind their parents’ backs” where schools do not inform families about the pupil’s new gender identity.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was due to publish guidelines to help schools interpret the 2010 Equality Act and how it applies to trans pupils.
Lack of case law
But last year the guidelines – that would have forced girls schools to admit trans pupils – were scrapped by the equalities watchdog, blaming a “lack of definitive case law” on the issue.
The equality watchdog has now urged the Government to “show leadership” and publish its own guidance. “We recently wrote to the Department for Education to ask whether they intend to do so and to offer our advice and support in the process if they decide to do so,” a spokesman told The Telegraph.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Appropriately supporting all children in a school can involve balancing complex and sensitive matters, and schools are best placed to work with parents, pupils and public services to determine the best approach. All pupils should be supported and treated with kindness and respect.”