Brighton College praised by parents for pioneering transgender uniform policy

Senior staff report plaudits for ‘an amazing step forward’ and say other schools are set to follow their lead

Adam Lusher
Friday 22 January 2016 21:32
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Pupils from Brighton College discuss the new gender-neutral uniform policy at the East Sussex school
Pupils from Brighton College discuss the new gender-neutral uniform policy at the East Sussex school

The playing fields are immaculate, the buildings Victorian Gothic Revival.

With fees starting at £5,100 a term, Brighton College’s alumni include QCs, lieutenant colonels and Sir John Chilcot, of the long-promised Iraq Inquiry report. He once said he enjoyed nearly everything about his alma mater except the cross-country runs.

So far, so Establishment. Even if it is now co-educational. But on the first day of Hilary Term in the school chapel – its walls studded with memorial plaques for old boys including Herbert William Thompson, captain in the 2nd Dragoon Guards, who “distinguished himself by his bravery in the Ashantee War” and for “zealous” missionary Cecil Pollard, “stricken with African fever in the midst of arduous labours” – current headteacher Richard Cairns made an announcement.

There would no longer be a girls’ uniform and a boys’ uniform. Instead there would be a trouser uniform and a skirt uniform. Transgender pupils or children with gender dysphoria were free to wear whichever they chose – which one pupil promptly did.

When news of the change in rules broke last week, there was a reaction. But it wasn’t what you might expect.

Deputy head Steve Marshall-Taylor, 41, scrolled through his emails. “I heartily approve,” one parent had written. “This,” intoned another, “is an amazing step forward.”

The views of long-departed Empire-building old boys Thompson and Pollard can only be guessed at, but here was one from an extant Old Brightonian: “I am very proud to see my old school leading from the front. Long may it continue.” But what about the pupils? How did 1,000 11 to 18 year-olds react when the headmaster dropped his “bombshell” at Monday morning assembly? Apparently it was by belting out the usual rousing verses of Jerusalem the Golden, and getting on with it.

“It’s just Brighton College evolving with the times,” said Lilya Tata, 17, of the upper sixth. “It doesn’t feel a big deal.” So small a deal was it, in fact, that some of them still didn’t know the name of the pupil who’d switched uniforms.

So there was no bullying, said Ella Grabsky, 16, of the upper fifth: “If anything, there has been admiration for their courage.”

However, this is “the Brighton bubble”, in a city famed for its pioneering acceptance of everything LGBT, and in a public school that never quite fitted the Tom Brown’s Schooldays model.

Founded in 1845, it was 1902 before games were compulsory. It now has a gender society, created by pupil demand, to discuss how gender issues impinge on current affairs.

So, could the new uniform policy work anywhere else? One email suggested not.

It read: “My nephew at [another] public school came out as trans. The school refused to acknowledge his requirement for an alteration of his uniform, and he was given a hard time by all who knew about it.”

Other emails, though, have been more encouraging. “I have had three emails from deputy heads,” said Mr Marshall-Taylor, “and one from a head. They were from state and private sector, spread all over the country, all saying the issue was very much on their radar.

“Three of them said words to the effect of, ‘Our pupils are talking about this [favourably]. We’ll have to work out what it looks like in our school’.

Leah Hamblett, headmistress of the lower school, said: “I have had three people asking to look at our policy.” Ms Hamblett, 41, began her career 20 years ago at a boys’ school where female staff were to be seen in only “dresses, pinafores or skirts”. She won the argument for women to be allowed to wear trousers.

Now, she said: “This is the start of a journey. It won’t be effortless everywhere, but things will have to change.”

Lilya Tata, meanwhile, said that perhaps the next generation of pupils won’t face reporters who think transgender-friendly uniform policies are in any way unusual.

“We’re quite an open-minded generation,” she said, “And if we continue to be open-minded, I am fairly certain that will be the case.”

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