21 June 2023

Five questions the new trans guidance for schools must answer


If the briefing to The Sun is anything to go by, then pretty soon we should finally see the guidance for schools on all things related to gender identity and trans issues.

Work on this was kicked off several Education Secretaries ago, by Nadhim Zahawi. In the absence of clear direction from the Government, schools have had to make things up as they go along, with many taking advice from activist organisations with dubious takes on the law and safeguarding.

The end result? Left-out parents, confused pupils, worried teachers, and the odd report of children identifying as animals and their classmates being told to go along with it.

We’ve been promised that it will be published for consultation before the summer holidays. That is literally only a few weeks away now, and so it should be out imminently. Assuming The Sun has it right, we are going to see a more muscular document than some expected, with clear statements around parental consent, keeping sport competitive and safe, single-sex facilities and some other key issues.

I think that this is exactly the approach needed.

Gender identity theory and the rapid increase in the number of gender-questioning kids is a recent phenomenon, so schools don’t have much experience to draw upon here. Also, what the law means in practice is not always clear, and the fear of getting it wrong has led to some unsatisfactory situations. Yes, there do seem to be some schools where ‘woke’ teachers are pushing their beliefs onto children, but my gut instinct is that the vast majority of times when it goes wrong it’s just misplaced kindness and cock-up as opposed to conspiracy.

But these are important issues, and if the Government can provide clarity and prevent poor practice then it should. And for me there are some important questions that it needs to clearly and concisely answer if the guidance is to make a difference:

1. At what point should families be contacted if a child says they are trans or non-binary?

Beyond the most extreme of activists, you won’t find many arguing that parents should not be informed if their child has told their school they want to adopt a different gender. The question is at what stage an adult should pick up the phone to call home. When something is overheard in conversation? Shared with a teacher? Or perhaps if the child says they want to dress differently or take on a new name? 

If gender questioning is just a matter of personal identity then it may be that parental involvement lies further down the line. If it’s coming from a child being gender dysphoric for whatever reason, then surely their parents should be told straight away, so that they can offer them love and support?

The guidance needs to tackle this head on. And to be useful, it must clarify the kind of safety threshold for the exceptional circumstances when parents are not told. It cannot simply state ‘when there are concerns as to how parents will react’ or whatever, as some will use a parent being unhappy about their child saying they are trans as an excuse to not involve them. That’s not sufficient, there needs to be hard evidence that the child would be at real risk.

2. Who needs to ‘sign off’ on a pupil socially transitioning?

You’ll hear people say that social transitioning ‘is not a neutral act’. You’ll also hear (probably different) people say ‘doing nothing cannot be considered a neutral act’. These phrases come from the Interim Report of the Cass Review, which is looking at gender identity services for children and young people.

We need a standard definition of what social transitioning is, and which aspects of this are considered a psychological-medical intervention, and which aren’t. It’s also not enough to say that parents must consent – we need to know whether or not it requires specialist doctors to ‘prescribe’ it.

3. Can gender-questioning pupils or staff use the facilities of the opposite sex? Can pupils apply to schools that normally admit the opposite sex?

Whether it is toilets, changing rooms, or dormitories – we need certainty as to what schools should do around access to these kinds of facilities. The EHRC has issued crystal-clear guidance on where sex-based exemptions are allowed or expected under the law, but activist organisations are still telling schools they should allow pupils to access facilities based on their preferred gender identity. We need the DfE guidance to give a definitive stance here.

4. Can schools refuse a request for a child to transition in school if they have concerns that it’s not the best thing for them?

What should schools do in a situation where parents think that their child should socially transition, but the school thinks that there are other issues that might be making the child unhappy that should be explored first? Can they refuse to go along with the request? What if the parents won’t back down? What if one parent is okay about transitioning but the other isn’t?

In nearly every other kind of situation schools are obliged to explore all possible reasons why a child may be unhappy or wish to pursue a particular course of action, and not just follow pupil or parental wishes – is gender confusion to be treated differently and, if so, why?

5. Can gender identity be taught to pupils as a fact of life? 

Is gender identity an actual thing that we teach kids, like we do scientific concepts or kindness, or is it something we teach kids about and recognise is contested, and so allow different views to be aired?

We’ve seen in the media recently how some schools are teaching children that gender is not biologically determined. And the Prime Minister has waded in to say that opinions should not be taught as facts. It’s time we had a clear stance from the Government on what schools can or cannot teach pupils. And if this leads to legal challenges, so be it. Let’s have things debated and confirmed out in the open for all to see, instead of it being determined school by school, behind closed doors. It will be healthier and more effective to have a consistent approach across all our schools.

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