Published: 19 December 2023 at 16:35
VIEWPOINT: Pupils need to be front and centre during government consultation phase
By Catherine Lee, Anglia Ruskin University
After significant delay, the UK government has published draft guidance for schools in England on “gender questioning children”, from education secretary Gillian Keegan and women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch.
The guidance is non-statutory, meaning it is not legally enforceable, and the government has launched a consultation on the plans. Until March 12 2024, individuals and organisations can provide feedback before the final version is published.
Already, though, disagreement has emerged. Former prime minister Liz Truss has stated that the guidance does not go far enough, and that it “does not sufficiently protect children”. Reports have suggested that a previous draft of the guidance was delayed when the attorney general advised that a planned ban on social transitioning – taking actions such as changing names, clothing and pronouns – in school was unlawful. Truss is calling for a change in the law to, among other things, stop schools from formally recognising social transitioning.
The guidance states that schools should not consider any action towards allowing a young person to socially transition until it has been explicitly requested by the child. The guidance recommends a period of “watchful waiting” before taking action.
It urges schools to involve parents – “We would expect parental consent to be required in the vast majority of cases” – but does not insist on it. It also states that teachers can listen to a child talk about their feelings without informing parents if no change is explicitly being requested.
This has the potential to affect how teachers support young people. Teachers regularly speak to students about their wellbeing, as a means of ensuring they are ready to learn.
The expectation that schools “should not proactively initiate action towards a child’s social transition” may make teachers nervous about what they can and cannot say to students who come to talk to them about gender identity, and may well lead to teachers avoiding the topic altogether for fear of breaching the guidance.
According to the guidance, there will be “very few occasions in which a school or college will be able to agree to a change of pronouns”. It states that no teacher or student should be compelled to use preferred pronouns and teachers can refer collectively to students as “girls” or “boys”.
Schools are also asked to first try all other options, such as using first names, in order to avoid requiring staff and other students to use a young person’s preferred pronouns. The guidance states that primary school children should not have pronouns that are different to their birth sex pronouns used about them.
This guidance doesn’t appear to have considered the voices of the very people it serves: young people who are transgender, non-binary or questioning their gender.
Research with adults has found that social transition can help improve the mental health of trans people. A small-scale study of the parents of 30 trans children of primary school age found that parents thought delays in affirming their child’s trans identity caused their child distress.
The new guidance may exacerbate mental health issues among young people if some teachers are forced to discontinue the support they currently offer.
The guidance says: “Schools and colleges should only agree to a change of pronouns if they are confident that the benefit to the individual child outweighs the impact on the school community.”
How teachers are expected to make this judgement is not specified but it will place a huge burden upon them. It may be that many headteachers will discourage, or at best avoid, formally agreeing to pronoun changes.
Reported suggestions from Kemi Badenoch that a doctor’s recommendation or “clinical gateway” would be required before social transitioning appear to have been abandoned, perhaps due to the challenges in accessing support for gender identity on the NHS.
Parallels may well be drawn between this guidance and Section 28, which was law between 1988 and 2003. In my book Pretended: Schools and Section 28 I refer to the struggles faced by trans and non-binary people in schools in recent years and point to Section 28 as a cautionary tale.
Section 28 prevented teachers from “promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Teachers were banned from discussing same-sex relationships with young people in school. This left a generation of LGBTQ+ young people without support throughout their education. Unlike Section 28, this guidance does not silence teachers completely, but it is likely to affect what teachers feel they can say – and, crucially, the extent to which they can support young people.
As we enter a general election year, schools and transgender identities will almost certainly be used for political leverage in the leadership debates.
The government must spare a thought for young people who identify as transgender and non-binary. Schools are already challenging places for them and their voices are not present in this guidance.
Regardless of our political allegiances, let us put transgender young people front and centre in this consultation phase and ask them how we can best create safe and inclusive schools in which they can thrive both academically and personally.
Catherine Lee, Professor of Inclusive Education, PVC Dean Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University
The opinions expressed in VIEWPOINT articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARU.
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