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Belfast girls' school told not to call its pupils girls

Victoria College advised to use gender-neutral language to make trans children welcome

By Allan Preston

Published 24/06/2016

Belfast’s Victoria College has been given the advice by the Girls’ Schools Association
Belfast’s Victoria College has been given the advice by the Girls’ Schools Association

A Belfast school has been advised to avoid referring to its students as "girls, young women or young ladies" by a leading girls' school organisation.

The Girls' Schools Association (GSA) said that terms such as "pupils" or "students" were more suitable for staff to use, "particularly when transgender pupils are present" and to create a more inclusive atmosphere.

The GSA represents many of the top day and boarding schools in the UK. However, Belfast's Victoria College is its only member in Northern Ireland.

GSA president Caroline Jordan said that the gender-neutral language should be used in certain situations.

Head teachers were also recommended to introduce unisex lavatories into their schools.

The Belfast Telegraph contacted Victoria College to comment on the advice, but it declined to issue a statement.

On Wednesday morning's Stephen Nolan show, John O'Doherty from gay rights group the Rainbow Project, said the issue was complex and that many young students could struggle with their gender identity.

"The fact is there's a gender revolution happening in terms of trans and gender-variant young people," he added.

"This isn't a new phenomenon and something that's happened in the last five years.

"Trans people have existed for thousands of years, and we don't yet have the language in our vocabulary to talk about them to young people."

He called the GSA advice "a positive step towards inclusivity". "I would argue to say they were encouraging (rather than forcing) people to use gender-neutral terms," he added.

Mr O'Doherty also questioned the need to separately educate boys and girls, as is the case in many schools here.

But Luke Gittos, legal editor for the news website Spikd Online, disagreed, calling the advice "absolute madness". "Children have always called themselves different names," he said. "Many little boys say 'I'm a girl'. What's changed is that we seek to call it something. We're obsessed as adults with identity, what gender we are, what sexuality. We're so tied up with our own identity that we're projecting this onto our children.

"I think the real point here is that children who genuinely express an interest towards transgenderism really need to be told that until they're of age, they're not responsible for making that decision."

Following the extensive media coverage, the GSA issued a further statement yesterday.

It said: "Although some of the coverage oversimplifies what is a complex pastoral issue, we are pleased to see that the fact that our schools enable all pupils to learn in an accepting, comfortable environment has attracted attention.

"The crux of the matter is that schools have a duty of care to all pupils, including those who decide to transition. Language is one part of this complex pastoral issue, and GSA schools, which have a long history of excellence in pastoral care, are at the forefront of showing best practice in including transgender pupils.

"For the avoidance of doubt, we believe that using certain terminology - such as 'pupils' or 'students' rather than 'girls' - is appropriate in certain circumstances, and particularly when transgender pupils are present. It is up to individual schools to interpret and apply this advice when appropriate."

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