Gender identity

Professionals will be aware that there has been a considerable increase over recent years in young people questioning their gender identity.

Gender identity

Some young people may identify as non-binary or gender fluid, and some may make a transition to a different gender. School staff play a key part in supporting young people with this - and the school’s support can often make a significant difference in helping with associated distress. 

  • Gender identity refers to: a person’s internal perception of their gender. 
  • Gender non-conformity/incongruence refers to: the extent to which a person’s gender identity, role or expression does not align with the sex that they were assigned at birth. 
  • Gender dysphoria refers to: when gender incongruence causes clinically significant levels of distress to the person involved. 

Referrals to the NHS service for children and adolescents with gender variance have risen. 

The number of referrals is currently at 8.7 per 100,000 population per year in 2021/22 compared to 4 per 100,000 in 2020/21 and 4.5 per 100,000 in 2019/20. 

Gender nonconformity and mental health

Being transgender, non-binary or gender fluid is not a mental health diagnosis,  nor does it mean that that a person will necessarily experience psychological problems. However, statistics do show that there can be associated difficulties partly due to prejudice and discrimination.  

One study found that, in children and young people experiencing features of gender dysphoria, mental health difficulties were significantly more likely. 

Gender diverse young people may experience bullying at school, which can also be detrimental to their mental health. Research found that nearly half of LGBTQI+ pupils (45%) – including 64% of trans pupils – are bullied for being LGBTQI+ at school. 

46% of trans young people reported that they hear transphobic language at school ‘frequently’ or ‘often’ and almost 1 in 10 trans pupils said that they have been subjected to death threats at school. 

LGBTQI+ young people were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Some faced challenges including feelings of isolation, conflict at home with parents or carers, and reduced access to in-person support services.

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

The Human Rights Act 1998, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and Equality Act 2010 compel all organisations, including schools, to take steps to address discrimination, including because of sexuality and gender nonconformity. 

There are lots of practical steps schools and further education settings can take to address gender-related discrimination.  

Some are whole-school changes to encourage an inclusive learning environment, and some are ways of supporting individual young people. Staff should always take time to listen to the young person, and understand their experiences and concerns, before taking any steps. 

When the steps taken involve a specific young person, schools should carefully consider whether to involve the young person’s parent/carer in any decisions taken.  

Some of these steps could include: 

  • Flexibility around school uniforms 
  • Using preferred names/pronouns, including changing the register 
  • Having gender neutral toilets and changing areas 
  • Flexibility around single sex sports activities 
  • Keeping ‘open’ about changes, to allow young people to experiment – including being able to revert to how they presented previously 
  • Clear anti-bullying policies and procedures 
  • Staff training on gender nonconformity language 

Creating a sense of belonging in schools and colleges is also crucial for helping students feel accepted and able to be their authentic selves. Studies have shown that belonging helps to prevent depression and suicidal ideation among LGBTQI+ young people. 

If a young person discloses an aspect of gender nonconformity to a member of school staff, the staff member should ask if the young person wants any help in disclosing this to other members of the school community, or whether they would prefer the information to be kept private. The staff member should try to involve the young person’s parents or carers, if it is appropriate to do so. 

It is important that the young person’s wishes are respected, and that the staff member should only inform others if they believe the young person is at risk. 

For younger children, it’s important to recognise that gender curiosity is a normal part of growing up.  

In primary schools, it can be helpful to explore ideas with the whole class around difference and acceptance. Primary school staff should show gentle interest, but not confirm or contradict the child’s perspective, and help them keep open minds about different future outcomes (even if the child seems very certain themselves).

Young children will inevitably have an immature understanding of ‘gender’ and a limited capacity for thinking about long term implications of decisions. Adults can help them keep open minds about future outcomes. 

Related resources

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Hannah Winterbourne: being transgender in the army

Hannah Winterbourne: being transgender in the army

This BBC One Show segment can be used in a lesson about gender identity and transgender issues.

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