Multi-layered approach necessary to build safe, inclusive schools

04 July 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time 6 min.
Ronald Addinall presents his talk: Are schools safe and inclusive spaces?
Ronald Addinall presents his talk: Are schools safe and inclusive spaces?

South Africa’s Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and/or sexual orientation. Yet, 30 years into a democratic dispensation, one pressing question remains: Are schools considered safe spaces for transgender and gender-diverse children?

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Ronald Addinall gave teaching professionals some food for thought on day one of the Newly Qualified Teachers (NQT) Project’s Winter School. Addinall is based in UCT’s Department of Social Work and Social Development and is a sexologist and the convenor of the clinical social work programme. His talk was titled: “Are schools safe and inclusive spaces?” It formed part of the three-day NQT Project’s Winter School programme – a series of professional development workshops designed to build stronger and more resilient teachers.

The event kicked off on Tuesday, 2 July, at the School of Education (SoE) on lower campus, with the aim to provide teachers with the tools they need to nurture the country’s bright young minds. The initiative forms part of the NQT Project – a SoE brainchild that provides critical support to young teachers during their inaugural year of teaching.

Schools are powerful communities

As he delved into his talk, Addinall described schools as powerful communities that join and integrate teachers, learners, school management bodies and parents from all walks of life under one umbrella. All these constituents, he said, intersect in powerful ways, and teachers and managers in schools are at the centre of it.


“Is your school a place [where regardless of] the learner’s culture, religion, race, sexual orientation or gender identity … is it a place where they are safe and feel included?”

It’s for this reason that he asked his audience to reflect on whether the school environments they work in are safe spaces for all learners, regardless of their religion or sexual orientation.

“Is your school a place [where regardless of] the learner’s culture, religion, race, sexual orientation or gender identity – no matter who your learners are – is it a place where they are safe and will feel included?” Addinall asked. “And if not, what is it that your school would need to consider to make it a safe space?”

Scrutinise policies

In his experience, Addinall said, it all starts with school management. When answering this question, management needs to scrutinise their policies, value systems, as well as their mission and vision, and what’s important for their constituents.

So, the challenge to school management teams is simple.

“Are you going to be a management team at school that makes sure that your learners are safe and included? The school needs to make a principled decision. Will they respect and value [everyone] and recognise that among our staff and our learners and our parents there are going to be persons of different sexual orientations and gender identities?” he asked.

Part of this work also requires reviewing the school’s anti-bullying policy and whether it clearly stipulates that the school will not tolerate bullying of any kind, including bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And if an anti-bullying policy does not yet exist, Addinall said, now may be a good time to establish a framework.

Create inclusive in-class systems

Creating an inclusive in-class environment is equally important. Addinall said altering administrative processes like class lists to ensure that a child who’s in the transition process is referred to by their preferred name (often different to the name given to them at birth), as well as by the correct pronouns, can go a long way.

Ronald Addinall’s talk formed part of the NQT Project’s Winter School programme and attracted teaching professionals from across the city.

He acknowledged that the Department of Basic Education requires that a child be registered at department and school level using the name on their birth certificate (until it is officially changed). But that does not necessarily have to apply in class for learners who are socially transitioning. To ensure that the environment is welcoming and inclusive, teachers can alter class lists and names on book stickers to make sure these reflect the learner’s preferred name. In addition, the teacher should also encourage classmates and other teachers to refer to learners by their preferred name and pronoun.

“What [questions] will come then are: What is our policy around sports teams? Are we going to have gender-neutral bathrooms and toilets? What are the [other] decisions we need to make to ensure everyone is included?” he said.  

Adopt inclusive teaching methods

Further, Addinall also suggested that teachers start to think carefully about their teaching methodologies and urged them to adopt and use diverse and inclusive examples during lessons. These examples vary, he explained. It could mean altering a story to include two moms or two dads, instead of a mom and a dad in a family setting or incorporating stories about young children who are trying to figure their gender out.


“It really is a transformation process that a school, with all the role players in it, need to consider.”

“So, reviewing the curriculum [is important] and management needs to arrange psychoeducation talks for management, for teachers and for parents,” he said.

“It really is a transformation process that a school, with all the role players in it, need to consider. Do you want to stand up and say proudly: in our school all our learners – no matter who they are – can be in our school space [and be] safe, included and acknowledged. And we will respect them no matter who they are.” 

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