Belfast Telegraph

Top Belfast's school's transgender uniform review, welcomed by campaigner

Methodist College in Belfast
Methodist College in Belfast
TransgenderNI director Alexa Moore
Principal Scott Naismith
Victoria Leonard

By Victoria Leonard

The director of a transgender rights group has said that every school in Northern Ireland should review its school uniform policy after Methodist College launched a consultation.

Methodist College principal Scott Naismith told the Belfast Telegraph that there are a "number of pupils who identify as transgender at the college" after the grammar school announced a review of its school uniform policy to include issues such as gender dysphoria.

The last review of the school uniform policy occurred five years ago.

In a notice sent to parents, the school states that it has "identified a number of factors requiring consideration".

It adds: "The policy should be flexible enough to ensure that recognised minorities are able to feel comfortable, e.g. religious groups, ethnic minorities, pupils with gender dysphoria."

Other factors due to be examined include affordability and the history and traditions of the college.

TransgenderNI director Alexa Moore (18) described the move by the school as a "really big step forward".

"I absolutely do think that every school in Northern Ireland should be undertaking a uniform review to become more inclusive for trans pupils," she said.

"As long as we want to ensure that pupils stay in education for as long as possible and get the most out of their education, we need to make sure they're comfortable in that space and they're comfortable in their own clothes as well.

"We see a really high number of trans people self-excluding from education for a number of reasons - for bullying and transphobic harassment, going to single-gender schools and being forced to wear a uniform they don't feel comfortable with.

"All of that contributes to people's dysphoria and to people not wanting to continue in education."

Alexa suggested that schools should adopt a "gender neutral" uniform list from which all pupils could choose.

"What we see currently is young trans people not feeling comfortable in school, not feeling able to fully engage in school because their uniform makes them feel uncomfortable or in some cases dysphoric," she added.

"Gender dysphoria is a discomfort that some, but not all, trans people feel around their bodies or around society's perception of their bodies.

"Allowing trans people to wear clothes that make them feel comfortable in their educational environment makes sure that they can get everything possible out of education.

"What we support is just one list of uniforms that pupils are free to pick and choose from as they wish, so rather than having a boys' uniform list and a girls' uniform list, it would be one gender neutral list that allows anyone, not just trans people, to wear whatever makes them feel comfortable.

"It respects everyone's right to their freedom of identity and makes sure everyone is comfortable in their educational environment."

Alexa said there is "no real accurate data" on how many trans pupils are in Northern Ireland.

She added: "Regardless of the number of trans people in schools, their experiences are often very negative, and anything that can make that more positive is definitely a step forward.

"I really look forward to more schools putting measures in place to make sure their trans pupils feel valued and supported."

Mr Naismith said the school uniform policy of Methodist College was "due for review" after five years.

He said there were "a number of pupils who identify as transgender" at the school, but declined to give a number for privacy reasons.

"As our diverse and inclusive college community changes, so too our practices and procedures evolve to reflect these changes and our policies have to be updated," he said.

"The communication issued to parents and staff, and previously communicated to pupils through the school council, is the first step in a process of ensuring that we have identified the appropriate factors to consider in our review.

"The responses from all of the groups will be considered and that information will inform the next steps to be taken."

At the request of schools, the Education Authority (EA) appointed a steering group which is drawing up guidance on supporting transgender pupils.

The EA said the guidance is due to be finalised and published in line with the new academic year in September 2019.

The EA said it was "developing written guidance in line with our statutory obligations as the managing authority for all controlled schools".

It said that this would cover practical issues including school uniforms.

The EA added: "The wearing of a school uniform is not governed by legislation but falls to schools to determine.

"The day-to-day management of schools, including school uniform policy, is a matter for school principals, subject to any directions that might be given by the board of governors.

"The guidance is non-statutory and does not constitute legal advice or impose any new legal obligations or requirements.

"Schools and youth services are advised, but not required, to follow it."

The EA added that it "is not possible to reliably estimate the number of transgender pupils" here.

The Department of Education said it "does not does not currently record any information on transgender pupils".

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