Beth* is a teacher. She works in a typical state secondary school in the north of England where there are now 25 to 30 pupils questioning their gender. She also has a transgender daughter who came out aged 11, was referred to specialist NHS services at 12, began hormone blockers at 15 and started oestrogen a year later. She is on a three-year waiting list for adult services and hoping to undergo surgery.
At school Beth helps run an LGBTQ+ club in the lunch break to support pupils experiencing gender dysphoria – a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. “We have a number that are fully out with their parents and out with their friends. We also have a number of students that come to (the) club for support because they’re out at school, but they’re not out at home.”
In other words, the school will facilitate the pupil’s choice to use a new name and new pronouns at school, while at home parents may be unaware of those changes.
“We have a kind of internal system of communication,” says Beth. “An email will go out to members of staff saying: ‘This student has asked if they can use this particular name and pronouns in class. It will not appear on the register but if you could remember to do it every time you speak to that student …’ and 99% of staff will agree to that.”
This is one of a number of issues in the heated debate over how gender dysphoria and trans issues are handled in England’s education system: whether teachers are required to inform parents when a child discloses that they are questioning their gender and asks to use a different name and pronouns.
After a thinktank survey in March reported that some secondary schools were not informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender identity, Rishi Sunak promised to publish guidance for schools in England later this term.
There are strident voices on both sides and it has become intensely political, with signs that the Conservatives see this as a wedge issue in the run-up to the general election.
For Beth, the school has a duty to support trans pupils, whose own voices can often be drowned out.
So how do parents react if they discover their child is using a different name and pronouns in school? “Some can be quite accepting,” says Beth. “There are other parents who will shut it down straight away and say: ‘No, I’m not having this.’”
Parents will be invited to come into school and advised on the professional and medical help available for children with gender dysphoria. No one has yet removed their child as a result, but some parents remain unconvinced.
“We’ve got one set of parents and they’re like: ‘She can do whatever she wants at school. But when he’s at home, he’s a boy … At home this is who you are.’” Another parent accused the school of brainwashing their child.
“We’re not trying to say to parents that we know best. We are working in the child’s best interests. We will do what we can to support them – what they ask for is what they will get. We work for the students, we don’t work for the parents essentially,” Beth says.
At this school, a pupil questioning their gender will be assigned a trained mentor, who will write an LGBTQ+ profile that goes to all their teachers, detailing their chosen name and pronouns, how they would like transphobic incidents to be dealt with, and which toilets and changing rooms they will use. School changing facilities is another issue likely to be addressed in the government guidance.
We do have some trans boys going to the boys’ toilets, but nobody bats an eyelid
“We give the students a choice,” says Beth, “but if they are biologically female then it’s usually expected they will change with the biological females. We have gender-neutral changing spaces which we encourage the use of, rather than putting a biological female in with the boys or a biological male in with the girls ... We do have some trans boys going to the boys’ toilets, but nobody bats an eyelid.”
And residential trips? “We’ve just done a trip abroad where one of our trans boys shared a dormitory with the other boys.” All parents were informed in advance and “everyone was absolutely fine with it”. On another trip, a separate room was found for a trans child.
According to Beth, if year 7 pupils (aged 11-12) are questioning their gender, the school adopts a watching brief. By year 8, they have had more time to process who they are, and staff will write a profile for those still querying their gender.
Rishi Sunak has promised to publish guidance for schools in England later this term. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
Beth refuses to “deadname” pupils – use the name and pronouns they were given at birth – and is adamant she would never “out” students to their parents.
“I think that’s absolutely wrong,” she says. “Not every parent is as accepting as I have been. They will shout and scream at their children. We had a student a few years ago who came out to their parents and their … instant reaction was to take their mobile phone off them, take their laptop off them and smash them up in front of them.”
In another case, parents removed their child’s bedroom door, saying: “You will never have any privacy in this house. The internet has transitioned you.”
Beth says the school’s responsibility is to safeguard students. “We don’t know the home situation of these students … We don’t know if they’re going to be physically abused, verbally abused, emotionally abused.”
There have been reports that under the new government guidance, teachers may be required to tell parents if pupils start using a new name or pronouns, or wearing different clothing. “If that guidance came in, it’s guidance, it’s not law,” says Beth. “And I for one would be very, very reluctant to pick up the phone.
“I would do what I’ve done with a number of students already this year. I would encourage them to start opening up and having conversations at home and softening the ground. I would encourage them to tell their parents.”
She believes teachers should be able to use their discretion. “If it becomes law that we have to out our students then I’m hanging up my whiteboard pens. I won’t teach any more. I won’t have anything to do with it because I will not be responsible for students being put into that situation …
“The biggest problem, I think, is that adults don’t believe and don’t trust trans children. But it’s a real thing. It’s actually happening on the ground. We need to listen to these kids and we need to work out how best to support them and allow them to live their lives with dignity, rather than with crippling dysphoria, and bigotry and hatred and misunderstanding – because that’s really all it is.”
Beth’s daughter, now at university, was at primary school when she realised she was trans. For the first four years of secondary school she remained in the closet, then at the start of year 11 she told the school she wanted to be known by a new name and use different pronouns.
“The school staff made it clear that they were there to help. For some people, their only support comes from school,” said Beth.
Bayswater is a support group for parents who oppose the “gender-affirmative” approach of Beth’s school. It does not believe teachers should support a child’s social transition – changing names and pronouns – in the absence of specialist NHS advice and consent from both parents, and it advocates instead for what it describes as “evidence-based care”.
The group has about 600 members, including Marie*. Her daughter had been a victim of misogynist and homophobic bullying. “Then there was this ‘secret’ presentation at school by a trans adult, who said their life had been really hard and that they had contemplated suicide,” said Marie. “But then they transitioned and then everything was great.”
Marie’s daughter was 13 at the time. “My daughter later referred to this as a pivotal moment. This was then followed by two weeks of really intense internet use.”
Soon after, her daughter made “an announcement”, which Marie later found out was similar to the kind of announcements made by other young people questioning their gender. “She told me, and I said we love you no matter what. I love you whoever you are, whatever identity you have, I love you.”
Her daughter told the school – an all-girls state school – that she wanted to change her name and pronouns, which the school duly did. (According to Marie, some schools organise celebration assemblies where a child officially comes out as a different gender, with a new name, and they’re applauded by their peers.)
“And then you start receiving communication from the school about your son with this other name … Suddenly people being sure that your child has a different name is weird ...
“For the school to make this hugely consequential decision without involving us, or without consulting a psychologist or a doctor, or any kind of clinical professional, seemed quite extraordinary. So I said to the school, well, what is the policy? And they said ‘there isn’t a policy’.”
It’s been horrible. Schools treat you like you’re this horrible bigot
Since then Marie and her husband have been referred to social services three times and family relationships have come under enormous strain. “It’s been horrible. Schools treat you like you’re this horrible bigot. What I’ve realised is that the school sees me as a safeguarding risk. They’ve safeguarded my daughter against me.
“I’m really angry about what’s happened to our family. It harms my daughter because she’s been made to feel unsafe at home. I think that’s the thing I’m most angry about. I think that’s abuse.”
Marie’s child is now 17 and at sixth-form college. The teenager uses a boy’s name and male pronouns. They don’t talk about gender identity at home any more. “It’s not my business what she chooses,” says Marie. “Equally it’s not my responsibility to believe in it. My daughter is maturing. She’s starting to realise that actually we’re not that bad.”
Schools have different policies on whether to tell parents about children who socially transition. Photograph: izusek/Getty Images
At a mixed comprehensive in the south of England, there are nine students who identify differently from their sex at birth – about 1% of the school population. The young people in question are overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – biological girls questioning their gender identity.
It first became an issue for the school in 2015 and because staff had so little experience they were forced to seek advice from other local authorities. According to Lucy*, the headteacher, there has been a shift over the years. Whereas they might once have automatically respected a child’s request that parents should not be informed, that has changed.
“You really do need to be telling parents now,” said Lucy. “We always tell children that unless it’s absolutely a safeguarding issue and they’re at risk then we tell parents.
“There’s only been one (pupil) who didn’t want that. And it started to get difficult. And I said, well, we’ve got to just move now. We need to tell parents, we need to support the child to tell them – but we do need to do it.”
But any government guidance should allow for exceptions, she says. “For example, parents who have radical religious views that mean that a child might be at risk if they declared they were transgender.”
Lucy’s school is, however, relaxed about a child socially transitioning at school – including a new name, pronouns and different clothes. “If that’s what a child wants to do, that’s what she wants to do and that’s fine,” she says.
Not everyone agrees. Draft guidelines published last year by NHS England suggest it may not be a “neutral act” to help children and young people transition socially while they explore their gender identity.
Lucy’s school is clear on changing spaces and toilets. “It’s not OK for a trans pupil to just be able to choose changing and toilet facilities of their chosen gender. So we’re not having a discussion about that,” she says.
“We’re quite lucky because all of our toilets are built as individual rooms off an open lobby. For a lot of schools, the toilets and changing facilities will be difficult. Residential trips remain a complete nightmare – having a separate room isn’t always possible. The other thing that is a total mess is sport.
“So far we’ve been fortunate. Because our students feel listened to, generally they’ve all been extremely helpful. In year 7 we do still have a gendered sports curriculum, to introduce them to hockey, netball, rugby and football. But after that everyone does everything and largely trans students have chosen to continue to do sport with their birth sex, but it’s a one-by-one thing.”
Toilet facilities can be difficult for schools to manage with trans pupils. Photograph: Mint Images/Getty Images/Mint Images RF
Sara*, the headteacher at a girls’ independent school in south-east England, said her school had its first trans student a decade ago. “So we’ve been dealing with, managing and supporting these issues for a really long time.” Now there is one pupil who identifies as male, uses male pronouns and has changed their name. Two more are using non-binary pronouns and have changed their names.
“What’s new is the media interest in it and the fact it’s become a political issue. We’ve been quietly just getting on with it but it has become an absolute minefield. There are extremely vocal and public supporters on both sides of the discussion.”
Parents get in touch, worried that schools are “pushing” a particular agenda. “But their children aren’t being given some sort of indoctrination into a weird world of 27 genders and 47 different types of pronoun. That’s not what we do. We’re not pushing puberty blockers or teaching them how to bind or any of those sorts of things that the scaremongers would have you believe,” says Sara.
“Our role is very much about being the supportive, trusted adult. We need to be the place that they can go for actual genuine facts, not a political response. And not whatever seems to be the fashion or flavour at the time.”
Challenging situations do arise. One year 8 pupil decided they wanted to be called by a different name and use male pronouns, but did not want the school to tell their parents. “We were adamant our school internal guidelines say we do nothing without parental involvement. We can’t be using pronouns or a different name behind parents’ backs in school.”
At another school, after careful consideration, staff respected a child’s request that their parents should not be informed that they wanted to change their pronouns, because they concluded it would put the child’s safety at risk. “That said, we didn’t go with the child’s wishes of changing pronouns. They stayed exactly as they were,” a senior school leader said.
A teacher carrying school exercise books. Some pupils ask to use a different name at school. Photograph: Michael Austen/Alamy
Guardian interviews with headteachers around the country, conducted anonymously to protect pupils amid such a polarised debate, revealed the delicate situations that schools are having to deal with, even among much younger children.
“We had a new child joining a primary school in our trust from a different school who was a trans boy,” said Sophie*, who leads a small academy trust in the Midlands.
“Nobody at his previous school knew biologically he was female. He was using the boys’ toilets, using boys’ facilities and having ‘girlfriends’. The other parents and children did not realise this trans boy was biologically female.
“They came to our school and asked for the same type of arrangements. We said no. Soon this child is going to go through puberty and there are safeguarding issues. It turned out the parents welcomed the clarity and conversation.
“In our experience young people don’t bat an eyelid. They are very comfortable with it, and the vast majority of parents seem to be supportive. There are a small number of parents, however, who are ideologically passionate.”
Sophie said she was aware that some schools have decided against consulting parents. “I feel pretty conflicted about that as a parent myself. But … there are circumstances I’ve been made aware of where it would not be safe to bring parents into the conversation ...
“It would be like throwing a bomb into the middle of a situation that was already really tense. Somebody in our school, where the parent was informed, the relationship broke down and the pupil had to move in with a friend.”
Sophie agrees that schools need proper guidance to help them negotiate complicated and highly sensitive situations. “I do think schools are really vulnerable at the moment to complaints from parents who feel strongly about this. Because there is no guidance, it does make them vulnerable.”
I’m just worried this guidance is going to be unhelpful. It will be too rigid
But she cautioned: “I’m just worried this guidance is going to be unhelpful. It will be too rigid and not give schools enough room to use their judgment.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These decisions are complex and sensitive and, while the government has been dithering over this guidance for several years in a way that is completely unhelpful, schools have been left to navigate this rapidly evolving territory entirely on their own.”
“These guidelines must be fully consulted on with the education sector, and other stakeholders, to ensure they are sensible and deliverable. Above all, they must make it easier and not more difficult for schools to maintain a respectful environment where all pupils are treated with dignity.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The education secretary is working closely with the minister for women and equalities to provide guidance for schools in this area, following calls from schools, teachers, and parents.
“This work is based upon the overriding principle of safeguarding children, and it will consider a range of issues. We will be publishing a consultation on the guidance this term.”
* Names have been changed
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