Four important things to know about the UK government’s school guidance on trans pupils

The UK government’s guidance for schools on supporting trans pupils has finally been published, and uses combative language and dog-whistles to describe trans experiences.  

On Tuesday (19 December) the Conservative government released its long-delayed guidance for schools on how to support trans, non-binary and gender fluid pupils. 

The non-statutory guidance aims to provide information to teachers and school staff on how to approach a range of issues related to trans youngsters in educational settings, such as pupils socially transitioning, changing names and pronouns, access to single-sex spaces, admissions to single-sex schools and sport. 

The Department for Education says the guidance has been developed after working closely with the Equality Hub and utilises expert clinical view and interim conclusions from the Cass Review, as well as taking a “parent first approach”.

In the lead up to the guidance being released, a number of controversial leaks suggested the government could compel teachers to out trans pupils to their parents and ban social transitioning altogether. Rumours which have been deeply unsettling to supportive parents and educators, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and trans youth themselves.  

These are the key takeaways from the 20-page document and what you need to know about the government’s guidance.

Guidance uses combative language

The guidance uses combative language to describe trans lives and experiences. Within the first two paragraphs of the foreword the phrase “gender identity ideology” appears before later stating gender is a “contested belief”. 

“In recent years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of children questioning the way they feel about being a boy or a girl, including their physical attributes of sex and the related ways in which they fit into society,” the guidance states. 

“This has been linked to gender identity ideology, the belief that a person can have a ‘gender’, whether male (or ‘man’), female (or ‘woman’), or ‘other’, that is different to their biological sex. 

“This is a contested belief. Many people believe this concept is one that reinforces stereotypes and social norms relating to sex.”

Further on in the guidance, the guidance also outlines when the school community is informed that a child is socially transitioning it must be done “without implying contested views around gender identity are fact”. 

“Other pupils, parents and teachers may hold protected religious or other beliefs that conflict with the decision that the school or college has made, these are legitimate views that must be respected,” it reads. 

Positioning the existence of trans people as an “ideology” is a dog whistling descriptor often invoked by anti-trans figures as a catch-all phrase to sow division between groups. 

As Human Rights Watch has previously pointed out, the buzzword is simultaneously used by nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-gay figures in an effort to “curtail sexual and reproductive rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality by playing on people’s fear of social change and claiming a global conspiracy of great influence and scale”. 

Teachers do not have to use chosen pronouns

Under the guidance teachers and school staff can “decline” a request by a trans pupil to use the pronouns they identify with.

It outlines that schools 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”. However, the government says it expects there will be “very few occasions in which a school or college will be able to agree to a change of pronouns”.

Alongside this, the guidance explicitly states primary school aged children “should not have different pronouns to their sex-based pronouns used about them”.

Caution urged over social transitioning

The guidance states that based on the work of the Cass Review, social transitioning – or a person changing their name, pronouns or the clothes they wear – is not a “neutral act” and schools must take a “cautious approach” in this area. 

As previously mentioned, there were deep concerns prior to the guidance’s publication that social transitioning in schools would be blocked outright, which could have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of trans kids. This is not the case as laid out by the guidance, with the government instead stating that any decisions schools take in terms of pupil’s requests must be “never be taken in haste or without the involvement of parents”.  

It reads: “Where a child requests action from a school or college in relation to any degree of social transition, schools and colleges should engage parents as a matter of priority, and encourage the child to speak to their parents, other than in the exceptionally rare circumstances where involving parents would constitute a significant risk of harm to the child.” 

Further on, it outlines that schools should not “proactively initiate action” towards social transition. Any action that is taken should only be considered after it has been “explicitly requested by the child” and a number of steps carried out, such as “engaging with parents”. 

These steps also include “watchful waiting”, examining safeguarding obligations, the age of the child and the impact a pupil’s social transition may have on other students. 

Single-sex spaces not included in social transitioning

The most heavily scrutinised part of the guidance and the debates around it prior to release, have come down to single-sex spaces. 

The guidance outlines that responding to a pupil’s request to social transition does not include access to such spaces, such as toilets, showers and changing rooms. 

“As a default, all children should use the toilets, showers and changing facilities designated for their biological sex unless it will cause distress for them to do so. In these instances, schools and colleges should seek to find alternative arrangements, while continuing to ensure spaces are single-sex,” the guidance reads. 

This “alternative” is suggested to be a toilet facility that can be “secured from the inside and for use by one child at a time, including for hand washing” or a changing room that can also be locked from the inside and used by a single pupil. 

Schools and colleges could consider allowing access to facilities at an alternative time, the government also suggests. 

What have government ministers said? 

Commenting on the guidance, education secretary, Gillian Keegan said: “This guidance puts the best interests of all children first, removing any confusion about the protections that must be in place for biological sex and single-sex spaces, and making clear that safety and safeguarding for all children must always be schools’ primary concern. 

“Parents’ views must also be at the heart of all decisions made about their children – and nowhere is that more important than with decisions that can have significant effects on a child’s life for years to come.”

Minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch said: “This guidance is intended to give teachers and school leaders greater confidence when dealing with an issue that has been hijacked by activists misrepresenting the law. 

“It makes clear that schools do not have to accept a child’s request to socially transition, and that teachers or pupils should not be pressured into using different pronouns. 

“We are also clear how vital it is that parents are informed and involved in the decisions that impact their children’s lives.”

What happens next? 

Following on from the publication of the guidance, parents, teachers and school leaders are being encouraged to respond to a 12-week consultation on the topic. 

The consultation runs from 19 December, the day of the guidance’s publication, to 12 March 2024. 

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