Why the new transgender children school’s guidance is life threatening and what you can do about it

Just days before Christmas, the government published new draft guidance advising schools how to deal with transgender children and young people. Responses from the LGBT sector have highlighted that this guidance – including instructions for schools to ‘out’ pupils to their parents, ignore pronoun choice, and restrict access to toilets and sports – endangers the lives of children and young people, and is likely to face legal challenge. As a researcher in queer and trans studies and a trans parent with a child who has recently entered the school system, my response to the guidance was visceral. This blog post is an attempt to turn my fear into action – and encourage others to join me.

Between 1988 and 2003, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 stated that local authorities, including schools, were banned from ‘the promotion of homosexuality’. As Cassal (2022) argues, the underlying message from Thatcher’s Conservative government was that Section 28 would protect children from the dangers of predatory homosexual adults/teachers, who would attempt to make them gay. The result? A generation of LGBT+ adults whose predominant – and often only – lessons around queerness came from playground bullying and what little other content we could grab through TV watched in secret and books read under covers. Fast forward to today and we see the same rhetoric used but this time it’s trans adults who are presented as a threat, attempting to recruit children, and turn them trans.

Time Magazine declared a ‘transgender tipping point’ Indeed, we have seen increased trans visibility and young people are more likely to understand their gender outside of the constraints of a male/female binary (Sinclair-Palm & Gilbert, 2018). This doesn’t mean that being trans is a new thing! As Heyam shows in their history of gender nonconformity, ‘gender has never been fixed, essentialised, or unchallenged’. It does, however, mean that more young people have access to language (and, we’d hope, supportive communities) that, if available to me, would have made childhood easier. This should be something to be celebrated and supported! Afterall, LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, a risk factor which is significantly reduced when they have access to LGBT+ affirming spaces

With increased visibility, however, has come increasing levels of public transphobia (Pearce et al, 2020), which is now playing out in schools. This isn’t surprising; ‘education plays a key role in constituting and regulating childhood’, meaning schools are ‘an obvious target for those seeking to prevent LGBTQ+ children’s existence both as LGBTQ+ children and as future LGBTQ+ adults’ (Amery, 2023) . Spending time in early years settings and schools as a parent reminds me how much work gender nonconforming children must do in such spaces, to remain gender nonconforming. Research confirms my feelings: primary schools are ‘fundamentally heterosexualised institutions, centrally implicated in the (re)production and regulation of gender and heteronormativity’ (Atkinson, 2020), something which the government (and Labour opposition) seem keen to maintain.

Perhaps the most worrying part of the guidance is that schools should (in the majority of cases) inform parents if a child is questioning their gender. This could be life threatening. LGBT+ homeless charity, ‘akt’, research shows  that 24% of homeless young people are LGBT+ and 77% believe coming out to their parents was the main factor. Anti-abuse charity, Galop, also shows that:

  • 2 in 5 trans and non-binary people have experienced abuse at the hands of their family, the majority before the age of 18 and often in relation to their identity.
  • The most common perpetrators of familial abuse against LGBT+ people are parents.
  • Trans and non-binary people who have experienced domestic abuse are the most likely of all LGBT+ identities to have found support from teachers or another adult at school.

Schools deserve guidance in how to support trans children, but this new draft guidance does not support. Rather, it encourages a climate of transphobia that makes trans lives unliveable. It needs to be strongly opposed.

What’s to be done?

As I read the guidance I kept reminding myself that the guidance is just that, guidance, and teachers can choose to ignore the majority of it. Furthermore, it is under consultation until 12th March 2024. There is space to resist:

1. Respond to the consultation.

LGBT organisations will be producing guidance on how people can respond to the consultation. Mermaids, Gendered Intelligence and the LGBT Consortium have all promised guidance. However, consultation responses are always better if you make them personal – when responding, do mention your educational expertise.

2. Reach out to schools and teachers.

Whether or not this guidance is passed, its messages are in public discourse – it’s vital that headteachers, teachers and other school staff understand the importance of ignoring the guidance and being a source of support to trans pupils. Discrimination and employment law barrister, Robin Moira White, recommends that if schools need guidance on supporting trans pupils, they could use the Scottish government’s guidance on Supporting Transgender Pupils in Schools and Brighton & Hove City Council’s Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit. Utilise your links to schools to get this message out there and encourage them to respond to the consultation. I have worked with Sheffield Queer Parents to write a model letter for schools. Please use this if it’s helpful.

3. Write to your MP.

Write to your MP encouraging them to oppose the guidance. Mermaids offers a template for this, though, like the consultation response, MPs are often more responsive if a letter is personalised.

Dr Tig Slater is a reader in Queer Disability Studies and Education at the Sheffield Institute of Education.



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