Teaching leaders have called on ministers to provide guidance on how to support students who identify as transgender, saying they are “caught in the crossfire” between strongly held views.
A thinktank said safeguarding principles were being “routinely disregarded in many secondary schools” when it came to gender identity, with some parents not told when their child first questioned their identity.
A paper from the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank said a number of secondary schools were not informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender identity. The research was based on responses to freedom of information (FoI) requests from 154 out of England’s 24,000 schools.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools were making significant efforts to provide support and care to students, but the report was contributing to creating a difficult environment dominated by strongly held opposing views.
“Schools work very hard to be sensitive to the needs of pupils questioning their gender identity, and all their pupils, by providing a supportive and caring environment, and teaching children sensitively about respectful relationships in a diverse society through RSE [relationships and sex education] lessons,” he said.
“Unfortunately, they are endeavouring to do this in the context of a public minefield of strongly held and opposing views, of which this report from a thinktank is yet another example.”
Steve Chalke, the head of the Christian charity and academy sponsor Oasis Trust, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said schools were dealing with children with mental health problems, adding that 64% of young people considering gender transition were bullied in Britain’s schools, while 80% had self-harmed and 40% had attempted to take their own life.
He said of the guidance in Oasis schools: “Sometimes there’s a clash of a school’s responsibility to safeguard a child with what they’re telling us about their home situation. But we would aim to sit down and support the parent as well as the child as early on as possible but we would never allow a reclassification without parental permission, up to the age of 18.”
Last year teachers called advice from Suella Braverman, then the attorney general, that schools should “take a much firmer line” with pupils who identified as transgender “unhelpful” and potentially damaging to children’s mental health. Braverman said schools did not have to accommodate pupils who wanted to change gender, and were under no legal obligation to address them by a new pronoun or let them wear a different uniform.
But some headteachers, who are increasingly having to navigate their way through these issues, fear not respecting students’ wishes would have a negative impact on their mental health and education.
As education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi said his department was drafting guidance in May last year, but the government has been accused of dragging its heels in the contentious area. A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the current secretary of state, Gillian Keegan, was “working closely with the women and equalities minister to provide guidance” and would consult on a draft before publication later this year.
Barton said: “The government has still not produced guidance for schools on supporting pupils who identify as trans or who are questioning their gender identity, despite this having been under discussion for several years.
“This is clearly needed so that schools are able to draw on an established set of guidelines rather than constantly being caught in the crossfire between opposing views and beliefs.”
FoI requests were submitted to 304 secondary schools in England in December last year, and 154 schools responded, either fully or in part, to questions asked by the thinktank about gender policies.
Policy Exchange said only 28% of the secondary schools who responded to the request were reliably informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender. According to the report, around 28% of secondary schools were not maintaining single-sex toilets and 19% were not maintaining single-sex changing rooms.
The thinktank asked schools for their policies on toilets, changing rooms and sports relating to single-sex provision. It stated: “Overall, schools were more likely to retain single-sex provision in all three elements. However, schools were significantly more likely to allow a socially transitioned child to partake in opposite-sex sports, than allow them to use opposite-sex toilets or changing rooms.”
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It added that a “number” of schools responded that while they would not allow a child to use “the facilities of the opposite sex, alternative facilities would be provided if the child felt uncomfortable using the facilities of their biological sex”. A small number of secondary schools stated that all toilets were unisex and there were no same-sex facilities, according to the report, which it said was “a potential breach of the law”.
The report concludes: “Our research reveals there to be a safeguarding blind spot when it comes to the issue of sex and gender.
“Safeguarding principles are being routinely disregarded in many secondary schools, which are neglecting their safeguarding responsibilities and principles in favour of a set of contested beliefs, in ways that risk jeopardising child wellbeing and safety.
“In doing so, schools are compromising both the law and statutory safeguarding guidance.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. The education secretary is working closely with the minister for women and equalities to produce guidance for schools which we will be consulting on shortly. In the meantime, we are clear that schools should make sure they work with parents, pupils and public services to decide what is best for individual children.”
They said a review of relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance had been brought forward. Dozens of organisations wrote to the education secretary last week to urge her not let culture wars weaken sex education, saying that England’s schools have vital role in tackling misogyny and abuse.
The spokesperson said parents had a right to view teaching materials and copyright law did not prevent a parent from viewing external resources on school premises.
In the UK, the youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or email [email protected], and in the UK and Ireland Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 988 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org