Trans pupils put school policies to test amid heated debate in England

Posted: 9th May 2023

Headteachers want help on dealing with gender dysphoria but fear government guidance will be too rigid.

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 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.

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.

Source: Trans pupils put school policies to test amid heated debate in England | Transgender | The Guardian

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