Supporting diversity in schools – upholding both your legal obligations and your values

Diversity is recognising and valuing difference. Supporting diversity involves creating a culture and practices that recognise, respect, value and embrace difference for the benefit of everyone. Encouraging greater acceptance and support for all youth, particularly those who identify as LGBTIQA+, will make communities, schools and other environments safer, better places for all youth.

Many of our clients are keen to support diversity, while also respecting the values of their school community and ensuring that important values and traditions can continue. From our work with schools, we have seen many excellent examples of schools that have been able to successfully navigate the balancing act of meeting their legal obligations and upholding their beliefs, teachings and faith traditions.  Providing an inclusive environment and upholding your school’s values need not be mutually exclusive.

Promoting acceptance of diversity in schools is a powerful tool to improve the mental health of young people.

The LGBTIQA+ Health Australia 2021 Snapshot uncovered some alarming statistics, revealing little improvement in the health of LGBTIQA+ people since 2016 equivalent study.[1]

  • LGBTIQA+ young people aged 16 to 17 were almost five times more likely than the general population to have attempted suicide in their lifetime.
  • Transgender people aged 14-25 are fifteen times more likely than the general population to have attempted suicide.
  • LGBTIQA+ young people are over four times more likely to engage in self-injury than the general population.
  • 63.8% of LGBTIQA+ young people aged 14 to 21 reported having been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

A first step can be understanding different facets of diversity. Respecting and using terminology can demonstrate to others a welcoming attitude. Research strongly indicates that affirmation by acceptance of preferred labels can help to relieve distress and improve mental health.

  • Gender expression: external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behaviour, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviours and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine
  • Gender identity: concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.
  • Non-binary: An adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories. While many also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do. 

Legal obligations

All schools in Victoria must take reasonable steps to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Under federal and state-based anti-discrimination laws, schools must not engage in discrimination unless an exception or exemption applies.[2]

A key legal obligation in terms of supporting diversity is the school’s duty of care towards its students. This article considers how schools can support diversity and eliminate discrimination in the areas of uniforms, bullying and bathrooms.

Uniform and Wardrobe

Schools can support diversity by expanding available uniform options to students. This has been a recent trend in independent schools and is gaining increasing media attention. Clothing contributes to gender expression, but does not have to dictate gender identity: just because a girl chooses to wear trousers to school, just not means she views herself any less like a girl or any more like a boy.

Beyond the debate around inclusive uniform policies and gender are comments and girls’ school uniforms limit them playing, exploring the school yard and participating in lunchtime games when compared with boys. It is harder to swing upside down on the monkey bars in a skirt than shorts.[3] In addition to imposing gender expectations on girls, uniforms can limit physical activity and exercise. 

To present an environment that supports gender diversity, schools can consider implementing a uniform policy that allows students to express their gender as they choose.  And, despite positive publicity, it is arguable that it should no longer be laudable to simply permit girls to wear trousers. Perhaps this should no longer be remarkable, and could instead be considered merely one aspect of gender inclusion.


To support diversity in schools, schools should reflect on their policies and practices, educate staff, and update procedures – but there is often a missing link: bullying between children is a powerful limitation on expression of individual diversity. The schoolyard can be a scary place for children grappling with identity – be that sexuality, gender diversity, cultural, racial or linguistic diversity.

Leadership examples from the top – for example, via a uniform policy – are highly valuable, however, education of students complimented by a hard stance on bullying are also critical factors to support diversity in schools.

Students may experience bullying because they are ‘different’ or are perceived to be different. Young people who do not conform to stereotypes of male and female can be vulnerable to bullying by other children. Statistics on harassment and bullying regarding LGBTIQA+ young people are particularly stark:

  • 61% of LGBTIQA+ young people report experiencing verbal homophobic abuse
  • 18% of LGBTIQA+ young people report physical homophobic abuse
  • 69% of LGBTIQA+ young people report types of non-verbal, non-physical homophobia: exclusion, rumours
  • 80% of respondents experienced the abuse at school.[4]

The bullying of LGBTIQA+ young people can have a significant effect on their education. A high number of school students experience homophobic bullying and discrimination in schools. A 2021 survey of 6,418 young people living in Australia aged between 14 and 21, [5] reported that:

  • 60% had felt unsafe or uncomfortable in the past 12 months at secondary school due to their sexuality or gender identity
  • 63% of secondary school participants reported frequently hearing negative remarks regarding sexuality at their school
  • 38% of secondary school participants missed day/s at school in the past 12 months because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable
  • 28.1% of secondary school participants experienced verbal harassment relating to their sexuality or gender identity at school in the past 12 months

A code of conduct for parents can be a useful tool to mitigate the harmful impacts of bullying, if it becomes apparent that bullying is not originating with students.


Accessing bathrooms can be a stressful experience for gender diverse students. Students can feel harassed or humiliated when made to use bathrooms that do not match their identity. Also, the use of staff bathrooms or accessibility toilets as a solution, instead of access to identity-conforming bathrooms, can leave gender diverse students feeling alienated. In some cases, accessing bathrooms can be so overwhelming that gender diverse students opt not use bathrooms whilst at school which may invariably lead to wetting accidents.

Wherever possible, schools ought to ensure all students have the right to access bathrooms that align with their gender identity.  Directing a gender diverse student to use the disabled toilet or bathroom for their biological sex can give rise to a complaint of discrimination.


School events play an important role in childhood development and the development of pro-social behaviours. It is critical to ensure gender diverse students feel safe to participate in school events and are not disproportionately impacted by gendered policies.

Consider your policies on key milestone events like formals and socials – does your school prescribe policies about who students can bring as partners, or a “traditional” binary gender dress code? To best support diversity in the school community, schools should aim to develop gender inclusive policies that inspire children to express themselves honestly and openly. Student voice is a key part of the development of such policies.

Support supporting diversity in schools – both by policy leadership on topics such as uniforms or bathrooms – and by proactive education and anti-bullying action – schools can have a wide ranging and lasting impact on young people facing adversity.

How we can help

If your school is in interested in talking to passionate specialists about developing diversity in your specific community, please contact one of our practice leaders Cecelia Irvine-So (head of education) or Skye Rose (head of workplace relations and child safety, and discrimination expert).

Having worked with many, independent, Catholic and other faith-based schools, Moores understands the importance of supporting diversity in a way which respects your unique school environment. For more information, please do not hesitate to contact us.

[1] Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTIQ+ people, LGBTIQ+ Health Australia, (April 2021)
[2] Anti-discrimination laws vary from state to state. Please consider if an exemption or exception may be relevant to your school (ie exceptions for religious schools). Please note that exceptions are interpreted narrowly, and reliance on an exception will not provide a defence to a claim of negligence for breaching a school’s duty of care towards a student.
[3] Stockings, tunic and leather shoes: Why uniforms stop girls playing, Sydney Morning Herald, (10 June 2021)
[4] Writing Themselves In 4 – National Report, Latrobe University (February 2021)
[5] Writing Themselves In 4 – National Report, Latrobe University (February 2021)