Northern Ireland schools get guidance on support for transgender pupils
"It is important that the young person feels supported and that their best interests are promoted," the guidance said.
The Education Authority for Northern Ireland has published their first detailed set of guidelines on how schools should support transgender pupils.
The guidelines cover issues such as uniforms, naming, use of toilets and changing rooms, access to sports and admissions to single-sex schools.
It applies to pre-schools, primary schools, post primary, special schools and other educational and youth service settings.
The Education Authority defines transgender people as those who "have a gender identity which differs from that of their (assigned) birth sex".
They go on to outline a trans boy as someone who is "a birth-assigned female whose gender identity is male".
The authority cites research on gender identity that suggests between 0.17% and 1.3% of adolescents and young adults identify as transgender.
However, there are no reliable statistics on the number of transgender people in Northern Ireland.
Methodist College principal Scott Naismith welcomed the publication of the guidelines, saying: "For a number of years now we have had transgender pupils in school and we've dealt with them and their families in a very supportive and inclusive manner
"When we had our first pupil who was going through the transition process there were no such guidelines so we were consulting with appropriate external agencies.
"Across the school we have changed policies and procedures. With uniforms, we changed it from a girls and boys uniform, we just said there's the unform and it's up to the individual to decide which items they want to wear
"In terms of school records and exam certificates, there's a lot there you need to know in advance and hopefully get it right the first time."
Most of the advise in the guidelines is aimed at post-primary schools, although staff in primary schools are advised to support a child who is exploring their gender identity, for example by wearing clothes aligned with the gender they identify with.
"It is important that the young person feels supported and that their best interests are promoted," the EA guidance said.
They also recommended that each school appoint a designated staff member to be the first point of contact for pupils who are questioning their gender identity.
School staff are advised to inform a pupil's parents - with the pupil's knowledge and consent - that the young person is identifying as transgender.
Teachers are advised to be "sensitive to the needs of transgender pupils, as well as the needs of other pupils" when making decisions about the use of toilets and changing rooms.
"Where requested, staff should give a transgender pupil access to toilets which match their gender identity, unless there is a good reason not to do so," the guidance states.
Reasonable efforts should be made to allow transgender pupils to use changing rooms that match their gender identity, they said.
But the guidance states "this should be assessed on a case by case basis" although "every way to enable full inclusion should be explored" - including allowing a transgender young person to use separate or gender-neutral toilet or changing facilities.
Teachers are told they should respect a transgender pupil's wishes with regard to what name they are called, including non-binary pupils who do not identify as male or female and may want to be referred to as "they" rather than "he" or "she".
The guidance said teachers and school staff may hold alternative views on transgender people but they do not "have unlimited right to freedom of expression".
If a teacher repeatedly refuses to call a transgender pupil by their preferred name they are to be made aware that their behaviour is unacceptable, the guidance said.
Schools are advised to be flexible on uniform or to allow a gender-neutral option.
"A transgender pupil should be allowed to wear the clothing that corresponds to their gender identity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, unless there is good reason not to," the guidance states.
On PE and sports, the guidance said it acknowledges there may be health and safety issues or concerns over fairness.
"Transgender pupils should only be treated differently in respect of their participation in PE and sports if it is necessary to do so to ensure fair competition or the safety of competitors," it says.
"Where staff decide to exclude a transgender young person as a competitor, this should be decided on a case by case basis, based on objective evidence," the guidance states.
Governors of single-sex schools are advised that there is nothing in equality law that prevents a single-sex school from accepting a transgender pupil.
"A pupil who has transitioned or wants to transition should be allowed to continue to attend a single-sex school," it concludes.
The EA said the guidance does not recommend a "one-size-fits-all" approach but is designed to help school staff make decisions to support transgender pupils.
NI Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma said: "There are a number of children in our classrooms who identify as transgender and it is encouraging that many schools have already taken positive action to accommodate all children.
"I warmly welcome the publication of today’s guidance and congratulate the Education Authority on such a comprehensive piece of work.
"In the absence of an Executive it is a very positive step in the right direction as it encourages a common approach to providing a learning environment where all children can thrive, regardless of gender. The guidance will be a great support for all teachers and those working in youth settings."
Belfast Telegraph Digital