Children’s commissioner advises NI teachers to use ‘gender-neutral language’

Koulla Yiasouma said part of the steering group's task will be to 'explore the use of inclusive language'
Koulla Yiasouma said part of the steering group's task will be to 'explore the use of inclusive language'

Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People has advised teachers to “try to use gender-neutral language to be welcoming of all the children”.

Koulla Yiasouma was speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme after it emerged that the Education Authority (EA) is to issue advice to schools across Northern Ireland about how to support transgender pupils.

The “non-statutory guidance” will cover a range of issues such as name changes, change of uniform and the use of toilets and changing facilities.

A steering group involving Northern Ireland’s main education stakeholders as well as clinical leads and voluntary sector organisations working in the area has been set up to inform development of the guidance.

“It’s much easier to say good morning children than it is to say good morning boys and girls,” the commissioner told the programme.

She said that would be her advice “where possible”, but insisted: “I am not going to condemn a teacher for not doing it.”

Welcoming the EA’s “positive step” towards producing detailed guidelines for schools, Ms Yiasouma told the News Letter: “Transgender and transitioning children in our classrooms is a reality and we are often approached by children, their parents and teachers seeking advice.

“Part of the steering group’s task will be to explore the use of inclusive language to allow teachers and schools to provide a learning environment where all children can thrive, regardless of gender and I look forward to reading their recommendations.”

According to the Department of Education, there are no official figures detailing the number of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland who identify as transgender – those whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

But a spokesperson for the EA said the new guidance is being drawn up in response to an increasing number of queries from local schools seeking advice about how best to support transgender pupils and tackle issues such as transphobic bullying.

It said it hopes to have finalised guidance for all schools by spring 2019.

“Transgender young people face particular challenges at school which can have a knock-on effect on their mental health, attendance at school and attainment,” the spokesperson said.

“Over the last year, EA has received an increasing number of queries from schools on how to support transgender young people. To assist schools in meeting the needs of these pupils, we are developing practical guidance on what schools should do to support transgender children and young people in educational and youth settings.”

Organisations represented on the steering group include the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the NI Council for Integrated Education, the Children’s Law Centre and Transgender NI.

The EA has also met with schools and parents of transgender children as well as other interest groups.

Transgender NI – a support and campaign organisation for trans people in Northern Ireland – said it is “excited to be involved” in the development of the guidelines.

It said the new guidance will “undoubtedly benefit the many hundreds of families across Northern Ireland who currently have trans children and young people in them.”

Commenting on the make-up of the steering group, Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute said: “It is important that the group should hear from a wide range of voices including feminists, psychologists and others who are anxious that children and young people are being rushed into adopting a trans identity by trans-affirming ideology.”