British schools go gender neutral to stop bullying

LONDON • With a push from campaigners and some parent groups, more British schools are allowing pupils to explore their gender identities in a bid to be more inclusive and stop bullying.

Cumberland High School, a sprawling establishment with nearly 1,500 pupils in east London, is one of hundreds of schools around Britain that is taking steps to break down the binary division between male and female. It has adopted a more liberal uniform policy that blurs gender boundaries and is adapting its infrastructure - with gender-neutral gym changing rooms that anyone can use - in an effort to be more accepting.

Mr Jake Jones, head of the school's personal, social and health education department, said teachers are also encouraged to use non-gendered terms such as "pupils" or "children" instead of "boys" and "girls".

At the Brindishe Schools in south London, pupils are taught about the possibility of using "Zie" as a gender-neutral option instead of "he" or "she".Education and health administrators say they are finding more children questioning their gender identity.

Not all parents agree with this view. The National Health Service this week was forced to remove a gender question from primary school questionnaires in Lancashire in north-west England after a wave of criticism from parents and lawmakers.

The question, on a survey aimed at children aged 10 and 11, asked them if they felt "the same inside" as the gender they were born with and offered three gender options "girl", "boy" or "other".

Whatever parents may feel, there is evidence of a growing number of children and young people grappling with gender identity issues.

The Gender Identity Development Service, a health agency for youth in London and Leeds, said the number of consultations has risen from 95 in 2010 to 2,016 this year.

While promoting inclusion in schools is challenging, laws have been progressively overhauled, such as the adoption of the Equality Act in 2010 which banned any form of discrimination based on gender or sexual identity.

Even the Church of England has revised its position. Last month, it published a set of guidelines for its 4,700 schools that read: "Childhood needs to be a period where we can make mistakes, try things out, explore projects and identities.

"This should inform the language teachers use when they comment, praise or give instructions.

"It may be best to avoid labels and assumptions which deem children's behaviour irregular, abnormal or problematic just because it does not conform to gender stereotypes or today's play preferences."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'British schools go gender neutral to stop bullying'. Print Edition | Subscribe