Gender neutral uniforms could appear in local schools

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Newtownabbey parents could find themselves shopping for a gender neutral uniform this summer if schools here follow the lead of others in the UK, according to a Ballyclare teacher.

Leigh Cooper, an officer of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, was speaking after a London school recently announced plans to introduce gender-neutral uniforms in response to a growing number of pupils questioning their gender identity.

“Some people may be shocked by this but really we have to look at what is fair and equitable in this age of gender equality and recognise the needs and rights of all our young people regardless of their sexuality,” she said.

“After generations of often secrecy and shame, young people who don’t fit the general binary perception of gender in society are at last being supported to come out and live their lives openly. However, many of our institutions still have to catch-up – and school uniform arguably being one.

“Already many schools here allow girls to wear trousers – little more than a century ago this would have been considered outrageous. The mores change and with them so should expectations.

“As children question and come to terms with their identity, often school is the place where this is most evident so teachers may be aware of these issues, even if parents are not, and can provide mediation, for instance, if such a situation arises.

“You only have to look at some of the school leavers’ yearbooks to see young people cite their names as those of their chosen gender as opposed to that under which they enrolled – an announcement about who they really are just at the cusp of adulthood.

“The Girls’ Schools Association has also advised members to stop using the word ‘girls’ and address children as ‘pupils’ instead. Last year it was revealed that around 80 state schools were allowing pupils to wear clothes of the opposite gender. “So this is happening in our schools and we must be aware of it. These young people’s rights are enshrined in equality legislation and we must ensure they are met and respected – even if that means radical changes in uniform.”