Promised in 2018, the Department for Education finally published guidance last month on how schools should approach transgender and gender-questioning pupils. The past year in particular has seen a flurry of news stories – some more embellished than others – on the services available to children questioning their gender, stoking considerable fears about the involvement of schools. In November, one Welsh school was forced to deny accusations of catering for pupils ‘identifying as cats’.
One should also note the publication of this guidance has also coincided with the conclusion of the trial for the tragic transmisogynistic murder of teen Brianna Ghey in Warrington by two of her former classmates, a poignant reminder of the real-life implications of anti-trans sentiment.
The guidance contains a number of suggestions, from single-sex school admissions policies to how PE lessons should be run. Whilst these are open to debate, there are two pieces of advice that have emerged as particularly problematic. Firstly, the government clarifies that schools should ‘take a cautious approach’ to allow a pupil to ‘socially transition’, such as allowing pupils to change their name and pronouns, or wear a different uniform.
To address such a contentious matter with so little care has potentially perilous consequences for child safeguarding
Gender dysphoria, defined by the NHS as a feeling of ‘mismatch between a person’s biological sex and their gender identity’, can be a distressing experience in isolation. Compounded by societal barriers and prejudices, transgender people, especially children, are at a significantly higher risk of mental illness and even suicide. The government’s recommendation to hold these struggling individuals to the same uniform standards as their cisgender peers (of the same biological sex) is a punitive measure. It sits gravely out of place in a 21st-century setting supposedly for fostering individuality.
Secondly, the guidance advocates for schools to inform parents if a child wishes to change their gender identity at school. In the words of Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, “No one loves children more than their parents”. It is this endearing, but fundamentally idealistic statement the Conservatives have employed to justify this policy. Exceptions are made where this would risk ‘significant harm to the child’, which, granted, may prove critical in a few limited cases.
However, in many instances, a child, let alone a member of school staff, is highly unlikely to be aware of the social views of parents or guardians. And transphobia, unfortunately, is no rarity, particularly amongst the older generations. YouGov data suggests over a quarter of over 25s hold ‘fairly negative’ or ‘very negative’ views about transgender people with a further third not explicitly expressing positive attitudes. To address such a contentious matter with so little care for its controversial nature is an oversight with potentially perilous consequences for child safeguarding.
The guidance is a thinly-veiled endeavour to pander to increasing anti-trans sentiment amongst the electorate
Teachers are not just educators but also act as counsellors and social workers in a chronically underfunded education system working with stretched social services. This duty to inform parents and carers erodes the role of the school as a safe space for all, particularly LGBTQ+ pupils. In conversation with The Boar, a current first-year student who identifies as non-binary recounted being “constantly misgendered” and facing prejudice “from both pupils and teachers” during their high school years. “I stopped going [to school] the entirety of year 11,” they confess, “I didn’t feel safe at all. It was a complete miracle I got GCSEs.” Counterproductively, in making schools increasingly hesitant to offer support and vital confidentiality, the guidance risks causing already vulnerable gender-questioning pupils to disengage from learning. The student goes on to lambast the government’s plans: “It’s an attack on queer people, it does absolutely nothing to protect kids.”
This brings me to my final point: a child does not have to be at risk of abuse in the home, or just an unfavourable reaction, to be deserving of privacy. Even the most supportive of parents are not entitled to such sensitive information on the basis of their open-mindedness. Admissions of gender questioning are crucial moments of extreme vulnerability, and with the mental health issues that dysphoria and transphobia can regrettably entail, any student who may identify differently to their biological sex would hesitate to open up. Furthermore, it is not as if a school can provide access, nor give consent to, any hormone treatment and medical procedures that are at the core of the coverage of transgender identity. Regardless of one’s stance on trans rights, the recommendation is a violation of a child’s privacy.
Whether a poorly thought-out set of guidelines or, in the view of some more cynical critics, a deliberate attempt to restrict trans rights, the government’s advice to schools fails to act in the best interest of transgender and non-binary pupils. At best, it demonstrates a poor effort at understanding the impact of gender dysphoria on education. At worst, the guidance is a thinly veiled endeavour to pander to increasing anti-trans sentiment amongst the electorate with little regard for the rhetoric’s subsequent endangerment of children. It is either way, a deeply irresponsible failure to protect gender-questioning individuals during the critical exploration of identity that characterises one’s teenage years.