31 January 2023

Are we finally moving to an open, objective debate on gender identity in schools?


Given how heated the debates around trans issues can be, it was refreshing to see how calm and considered questions on the topic were in the House of Lords last week.

The specific matter at hand was the guidance for schools on trans identity currently being developed by the Department for Education (DfE). Announced last spring, the guidance was originally due to be published for consultation in the autumn, but given the recent ministerial hokey-cokey it’s understandably taking a while to see the light of day.

As the questions in the Lords illustrate, there is a lot riding on this document. There are all sorts of views on how these sensitive issues should be dealt with by teachers. Most of those views come from a place of compassion and care, but many of them are completely at odds with one another.

It’s going to be extremely tricky to produce something that everyone agrees with, so it’s probably worth revisiting how we got to this point and what is likely to emerge from the department some time this spring.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the suggestion that guidance was needed came not from the Government, but from the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC had received a steady stream of queries from teachers, families and others as to what schools should and shouldn’t be teaching about gender identity, or doing to support gender-questioning pupils. There was an obvious need for an objective summary of things as, in the absence of official guidance from the Government, various organisations had created their own, lots of which clashed, and interpreted the law and its implementation in very different ways.

As the Cabinet minister with responsibility for children and schools, the then Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, took on the EHRC’s suggestion and tasked officials with creating something as definitive and objective as possible. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was treated as A Big Deal, with people from all sides of the debate demanding that schools be instructed to do whatever it is they  think they should do – and not necessarily what the law required.

Some even argued that gender identity wasn’t an issue in schools at all, or that guidance should be based on what schools already did.

This was, however, rather to miss the point. The rapid increase in gender-questioning kids is a recent phenomenon in society, so it’s not a surprise that people aren’t sure what the best way to do things is. Teachers are experts in teaching, learning and general pastoral support – they’re not medical professionals and they’re definitely not qualified to conduct diagnoses. 

It’s a complex picture then, but fortunately when it comes to schools there are a few things that underpin and inform what teachers do – that ‘guide the guidance’, if you will. First and foremost, and absolutely non-negotiable, is the requirement to keep pupils safe. After that, you have requirements like political impartiality, and the right of families to be involved in their child’s education as far as possible.

There are also three important and clear pillars of law and practice that the guidance will draw from and reflect: the law, in particular the Equality Act; equalities practice, as guided by the EHRC; and the Cass Review of gender identity services for young people. As Baroness Barran said in the debate last week, the guidance will not create any new laws or responsibilities. It will just explain, clearly and in one place, what the implications of these three pillars mean when it comes to educating and looking after children.

When you think about the range of things that are affected by the emergence of gender identity as an issue, clarity cannot come soon enough.

Whether it’s admissions policies, access to single-sex facilities, sports teams, PE lessons, boarding houses, pupil pronouns, social transitioning – and even how to teach gender identity itself to pupils – I know from talking to teachers across the country that they’re walking on eggshells, trapped between activists and families, desperate to do the right thing, and worried they may be getting stuff wrong.

While I’m confident that most schools are handling things well, I’ve seen and heard of enough cases where they aren’t. That’s why this guidance is so badly needed. We need to know, for example, whether it’s OK to teach school children that the gingerbread model of identity is a fact, as opposed to an idea. Or if schools should affirm a teen as ‘non-binary’ without a doctor’s say so. Or if they can they do it without informing parents.

Of course, it won’t be able to give definitive answers to everything. There will still be grey areas – not least because, as the Cass Review has flagged, gender identity issues have not been approached as openly or consistently as other areas. However, when the guidance sees the light of day I hope it will take a lot of the heat out of these arguments. It won’t satisfy everyone, but finally there’ll be a common language and understanding as to how schools should deal with it.

Importantly it will be transparent and out there for all to see and comment upon. This is much better than the situation we have now, where decisions have been made behind closed doors, and schools left to make it up as they go along and hope for the best.

Heck, it might even help us have discussions on the issues as calm and polite as the debate last week in the House of Lords – and wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?!

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.