Promoting transgender equality: social workers are up for the challenge but can’t do it alone

As shown by Stonewall’s recent Trans Report, it is difficult to overstate the obstacles faced by the UK’s transgender population. Harassment, violence and discrimination are staples of trans peoples’ daily experiences, resulting in high rates of mental distress, self-harm, and suicide.

For any person facing discrimination, public services are usually a lifeline of support. Trans peoples’ experiences of public services, however, have been identified to be fraught with discrimination, with transphobia affecting their treatment within schools, social services, the NHS, prisons and probation services, and with the police.

It is within this context that in July 2016 the Government, in response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on Transgender Equality, signposted its commitment to ensuring all public sector professionals receive adequate training on gender identity and gender variance, and to commissioning reviews to assess the level, depth and frequency of training required in each public sector profession. Today the first of these reviews, commissioned by the Department for Education and undertaken by NIESR, is published, focusing on education and training in the child and family social work profession.

Based on qualitative research undertaken with educators, professionals and key stakeholders in child and family social work education, the report looks at the current provision of education and training, and explores what can be done to improve the experiences of trans people accessing child and family social services. The report shows it likely that the majority of child and family social workers have very little education or training on gender variance, resulting in a lack of formal knowledge and awareness. Our main conclusion is therefore that additional training materials are urgently required, in order to improve awareness of transgender issues and the poor quality of service that trans people currently face.

There’s no doubt that such materials would be welcomed by the profession. Through undertaking this research, and presenting its findings, I have had the opportunity to discuss directly with children and families social workers and representative bodies what should be done to promote transgender equality. I have been struck by the professions’ clear commitment to improving services, and by their eagerness to engage with the organisations that support the transgender community, who also took part in the research.  A clear message from all those involved, however, is that progress cannot happen on its own, and that two key things are required of Government.

Firstly, we need investment. The report reveals that the evidence base on the nature and experiences of the transgender population in the UK continues to be poor. As it currently stands, a lack of transgender-specific research is depriving child and family social workers of an evidence-based on which they can develop best practice. Behind this report’s recommendation to develop resources is therefore the need to invest more broadly in better understanding what works in supporting the transgender population, in order to enable better awareness of transgender issues, and improve all services. Improving the evidence base, however, is not something that social workers, teachers, NHS staff, police and probation services can do alone. Rather it requires the Government to act upon its commitment to promote transgender equality by ensuring other departments follow the DfE’s lead to commission research, and work alongside public sector professions to follow through on recommendations.

Secondly, we need leadership. Ever since the Government announced its intention to reform the Gender Recognition Act (2004), a heated public debate about the rights of transgender people has ensued. This has resulted in widely inaccurate and prejudicial media coverage, which research carried out from Kings College London shows has detrimentally impacted upon the health and wellbeing of trans people.  To address high levels of discrimination and its damaging consequences, it is the responsibility of Government to challenge the prejudicial nature of current debate. With eight out of 10 trans young people self-harming and almost half have attempting suicide, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The challenge for the newly appointed Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mourdaunt, is therefore to offer that leadership, and to take a stand to show it is indeed finally time to ‘come out for trans equality’.

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