rs21 educators identify the new advice as ‘a key plank of the Tory re-election campaign’ and an attack on young trans people. This piece urges workers in the sector to call it out as such.
The recent government guidance on transgender children in schools (published in December 2023) constitutes a long-anticipated and vitriolic attack on children. In this brief article, I want to look at some of the key points in the guidance and then discuss what we can do about it.
The DfE guidance (available here) is currently open for consultation. It is non-statutory, so it won’t be law, but it is also an expectation that schools will feel obliged to engage with. Many school leaders, who don’t feel confident making policy on their own in the face of competing views from parents, were relying on this guidance to give them a road map for supporting trans children. On inspection, we can see that the guidance is actually a wide-ranging attack on trans children and an attempt to deny their very existence. This will leave schools, leaders and teachers more exposed than ever. It will also, most importantly, leave children less safe.
The guidance starts by asserting-as-fact the erroneous belief that gender identity is a contested idea. Indeed, the government uses the loaded term, ‘ideology’ to try and discredit the widely accepted idea that gender is socially constructed. From this starting point, the guidance continues with its systemic erasure of trans children. The government argues that ‘social transitioning’ (their term for children exploring their gender identity) is not a ‘neutral act;’ a phrase designed to create the impression that there is a ‘normal’ way to be and an abnormal way to be. Hot on the heels of this, the guidance introduces as many barriers as possible to children expressing anything that isn’t their birth-assigned gender: schools shouldn’t have gender-neutral toilets, there shouldn’t be flexibility over uniform, schools should continue to use birth-assigned gender, no teacher should be compelled to use a child’s real name and pronoun if it is different from their birth-assigned gender.
Most worryingly, the guidance contains a requirement for schools “should only agree to a change of pronouns (or name) if they are confident that the benefit to the individual child outweighs the impact on the school community.” This statement is worrying in itself as it seems to promote the idea that a child exploring or expressing their gender identity is in some way detrimental to other children. But it is vague, and easily ignored, until the guidance says that “it is expected that there will be very few occasions in which a school or college will be able to agree to a change of pronouns.” No explanation is given for this bald statement but its inclusion clearly signals the main point of this guidance – to force schools and educators to police and enforce conservative social norms on children.
The effects of the guidance will be far reaching. In schools where the majority view of the school leadership, educators or parents are dominated by socially conservative and transphobic elements, trans children will be erased from existence. Children won’t be able to explore their identity or socially transition. This will inevitably lead to trans children either facing exclusion from education or a soaring mental health crisis amongst this group. In schools where educators want to do the right thing but face push back from parents (of the child or in the community), this guidance will empower their critics. Situations like these will inevitably lead to either capitulation from educators or conflict within schools.
Lastly, this guidance will create situations where trans pupils will be unsupported, may feel like they have to fight their school for simple recognition of their identity or are put at risk from schools implementing the government guidance.
This guidance is a naked attempt to try and make educators enforce ‘gender norms’ on children. It is unacceptable, it is dangerous for children, it is transphobic and it is just wrong.
This attack is both a key plank of the Tory re-election campaign as well as constituting a serious and wide ranging attack on the rights of all children, trans or otherwise.
So what should we do about it? The first step is relatively simple – educators must register their disgust at the guidance while it is in the consultation phase. This might get some of the guidance withdrawn and more neutral language inserted – that will at least help free good schools from the Tory straitjacket. But what about schools that don’t want to fight for an inclusive education system? What should we do there?
The answer lies in our self-activity as workers in schools. We have the power to collectivise this issue and push school policies onto a track that respects our pupils and provides an inclusive learning environment. We need to make it clear to colleagues, the government and our school leaderships that we will refuse – collectively – to implement transphobic advice. Educators and socialists in schools have a duty to protect the children in our care by allowing them to express their gender identity however they see fit.
There were almost immediate reports that the advice itself was unlawful but bitter experience shows that we cannot rely on the courts. The racist Rwanda scheme shows that the Tories are happy to rip apart fundamental laws in their quest to corral and buttress a right wing vote at the next election. Instead we must rely on ourselves and our own democratic organisations.
I don’t think we should be under any illusions that this will be easy. Within the education sector, and its unions, there is a spectrum of views on this issue – some of which are openly transphobic. We will have to win colleagues to this position and prepare ourselves for a large public campaign if the government seeks to introduce this guidance. Transphobia is the sharp end of the wedge of a wider homophobic and sexist attack from the political right – we need a campaign on the par of our opposition to section 28 to repel it. This is something that all educators and all socialists must be ready to carry out.