Tooled Up Education

Researcher of the Month

What is school like for gender-diverse teens in the UK?

A growing number of adolescents are using a number of different identities to describe their gender. Research consistently shows that gender-diverse teens experience worse mental health than either their gender-conforming counterparts or other members of the LGBTQ+ community and that they experience high levels of bullying, are more likely to self-harm and have higher rates of suicidal behaviours. Existing research indicates that gender inclusive approaches are better for the mental health of gender-diverse young people. However, there has been minimal research in the UK on gender-diverse adolescents’ school experiences.

Our Researcher of the Month, Dr Susie Bower-Brown and co-authors, sought to assess the school experiences of binary-trans, non-binary and gender-questioning teenagers in the UK, gaining insight into how these students navigate school life. 


Data for Dr Bower-Brown’s study was gathered through a survey created in conjunction with Stonewall. The survey was available online and on paper and was open to young people (aged 11-19) who identified as LGBT and lived in England, Scotland or Wales. It gathered over 3000 responses. This paper focused on respondents aged 13-17 who identified as gender-diverse. Dr Bower-Brown sought to establish how young people with different gender identities might have different experiences, rather than focusing on ‘gender-diverse’ as a singular umbrella term. 

The young people in the study noted that they experienced high levels of challenge within the school environment. These mainly related to four key areas: the curriculum, school spaces, peers and teachers. 

Some young people described feeling invisible in the school environment, noting that LGBTQ+ identities were frequently not mentioned at all within the curriculum. Participants suggested that if LGBTQ+ issues were mentioned, education was mostly limited to “mild homophobia” and tended to focus on lesbian and gay identities.

Single sex spaces were considered particularly difficult, though the experiences of binary-trans students tended to differ to those of non-binary and gender-questioning students. Participants described how schools often don’t have spaces (toilets or changing rooms) which explicitly include gender-diverse young people. Non-binary and gender-questioning in particular frequently didn’t feel confident or comfortable within either male or female spaces. Binary-trans participants often described feeling a sense of otherness.

Participants expressed how peers’ and teachers’ reactions to their identity were important in determining their school experience. They noted that a lack of understanding and bullying were common, both online and in person. This commonly included inappropriate language and comments and sometimes involved physical or sexual assault. 

To navigate daily school life, participants in the study described using various coping strategies. Negotiating disclosure about their gender identity and seeking to control public information was found to be a key and constant factor. Many of the young people sought to reframe negative experiences to minimise impact on their wellbeing. Proactive protection, such as seeking out other LGBTQ+ people and allies, creating communities and engaging in activism was generally described as particularly effective in improving their school experience.


“Supportive and inclusive policies that precede adolescents’ coming out have the potential to reduce the burden on individual students.”

It’s important to acknowledge that gender identity can feel a challenging issue to negotiate for many school staff. However, participants in the study expressed that teachers have a unique authoritative power to either help or hinder them. Schools might consider leaning in and asking pupils about their experiences. Students described feeling positive when teachers listened to their needs or started initiatives such as LGBTQ+ clubs. Proactively talking to students in your own school community and looking at bespoke support appropriate to their needs is likely to be beneficial. Should a student confide in you about their gender identity, listen to them without judgement, be alert to signs of distress and provide them with good-quality information and support if they need it.

Be extremely mindful of the language that is used around the school, by both pupils and staff, and foster an environment that embraces diversity in all forms. Ensure that your anti-bullying policy includes clear guidelines on LGBTQ+ discrimination. Ideally, your policy will take a whole-education approach and be written in conjunction with the entire school community, including parents and students. Tooled Up subscribers can listen to our podcast with Professor James O’Higgins Norman to learn more. 

Based on participants’ experiences, proactive protection appeared to be the most effective strategy for navigating the school environment. Initiatives such as LGBTQ+ groups and inclusive curricula are important. Assessing school climate and obtaining pupil voice on the impact of issues including curriculum content and single sex spaces could give schools greater insight into improving the experiences of gender-diverse teens.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Dr Susie Bower-Brown, Lecturer in Social Psychology at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL

Dr Susie Bower-Brown is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL. As a qualitative social psychologist, Susie’s research takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring gender, LGBTQ+ identities and the experiences of parents and children within diverse family forms. Prior to joining UCL, Susie was based at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University and completed her PhD research with Professor Susan Golombok, looked at the social experiences of trans and non-binary parents and the school experiences of gender-diverse adolescents. Susie is on the Editorial Board for LGBTQ+ Family: An Interdisciplinary Journal and regularly speaks about gender diversity to academic and non-academic audiences.

Link to article