Strengthening DfE Schools Guidance: A Call to Action for Parents

The Department for Education consultation on guidance for schools closes soon. Here is our guide to the consultation and why you should have your say.

There is much to be welcomed in the DfE’s draft guidance for schools, particularly the clarity around existing legal duties. However, there are key areas that require strengthening. A summary is provided below and we urge parents to respond to the consultation. Personal accounts of how the current situation in schools has affected your family will be particularly compelling if combined with the points highlighted here. The deadline for responses is 11.59 on March 12: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gender-questioning-children-draft-schools-and-colleges-guidance

Safeguarding:

The guidance should explicitly reference the very serious psychological and physical risks associated with a trans-identity. Otherwise, schools will continue to respond simply to the superficial identity rather than considering underlying causes & consequences. A safeguarding assessment must be mandated for any student who requests social transition or who exhibits signs of distress relating to questions about gender. This assessment should consider the following (with appropriate action being taken accordingly):
i) Potential background factors: (undiagnosed) autism/ADHD, trauma, CSA, online sexual grooming, bullying, homophobia, social isolation, gender non-conformity, normal physical changes during puberty, gender identity content in PSHE curriculum/LGBT+ school clubs.
ii) Potential risks: breast binding, genital tucking, sourcing black market drugs, exposure to inappropriate online content, family relationship breakdown (often encouraged by peers/online), unaddressed mental health conditions such as psychosis, cutting and anorexia.

‘Watchful waiting’ is a therapeutic concept and, as such, an inappropriate term for this guidance as this is beyond the remit of education professionals. Children who are questioning their gender require ACTIVE safeguarding to explore serious comorbidities & associated risks.

Evidence-based training for schools

Teachers need an understanding of the Cass Review findings to empower them to respond appropriately to students raising questions about gender. The NHS MindEd training for education professionals should be referenced directly in the guidance. An explicit warning is required about ideological materials from lobby groups. DfE should work with the Department for Health to make resources available to schools to ensure they take evidence-led decisions and do not undermine the NHS’s guidance for paediatric gender services.

Social Transition

The guidance is insufficiently clear on the difference between a request for a nickname or other name change and a request for a new name associated with a trans identity. The latter comes with all the safeguarding risks and co-morbidities already highlighted. More broadly on social transition, it is thought that concerns over unmanageable pressure on the NHS prevented inclusion of a requirement for prior clinical approval. However, a lack of resources in the health service does not justify transferring this responsibility to schools. Yet that is precisely what is done by means of a loophole in the guidance permitting social transition in “exceptional cases”, with no explanation as to how a school could ever be qualified to facilitate such a decision with “significant effects on […] psychological functioning”. At the very least, a reminder is required in the guidance of the statutory duty in Keeping Children Safe in Education that: “only appropriately trained professionals should attempt to make a diagnosis of a mental health problem”. Moreover, since schools often fail to appreciate that social transition is a clinically consequential decision, they need a much stronger reminder about psychological impacts and the fact that this is the first step on a pathway to hormonal and surgical interventions. Since many teachers (and indeed some parents) labour under the false impression that there is reliable evidence to suggest mental health benefits following social transition, the guidance must spell out the lack of evidence to support this step.

Parental Engagement

The guidance allows information to be withheld if parents are deemed to pose “a significant risk of harm to the child”. But such a scenario would seem to require immediate instigation of a safeguarding process for the child, regardless of their identity. Schools must not be given license to withhold information due to “significant risk of harm” but then take no further action to protect the child.

Curriculum Issues

The guidance rightly states that the concept of gender identity is contested and criticised for reinforcing “stereotypes and social norms relating to sex”. However, without changes to DfE’s own statutory RSE guidance this statement is of little value. Teaching gender identity as fact constitutes a breach of existing impartiality & political neutrality obligations under Sections 406-407 Education Act. Nevertheless, this practice is widespread and the reason for this is DfE’s own 2019 RSE guidance. This must now be rectified. Schools must make it clear to children that nobody is born in the wrong body and that being male or female in no way constrains anyone’s individual identity or expression. Any mention of gender identity must make explicit that this is a subjective belief, not objective fact. The guidance hints at a potential conflict between facilitating social transition and a school’s duty to avoid imposing politically partisan beliefs on the school community, but still leaves an impossible decision down to each school’s discretion. More clarity is needed here.

Updates to Statutory Guidance

The proposed guidance will be non-statutory in nature once introduced. This will not be adequate to achieve the required changes. There must also be updates to existing statutory policies:
i) Keeping Children Safe in Education: where trans identity must be addressed separately from sexual orientation (including acknowledgement of the safeguarding risks outlined earlier)
ii) RSE guidance: which is the source of ideological curriculum content relating to gender identity.

As we highlighted before, personal accounts are really essential to the consultation and the deadline is March 12. Have your say here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gender-questioning-children-draft-schools-and-colleges-guidance