Understanding and Supporting Children with Gender Identity Questions: A Guide for Schools

Sara Spinks 2 January 2024 3 min read
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In this latest article, Sara Spinks explores the principles outlined in the new draft DfE guidance designed to help schools and colleges understand and support children with gender identity questions.

The Department for Education (DfE) has finally created a draft guide for schools and colleges aimed at helping them navigate situations where children are questioning their gender identity. The draft guide, produced in December 2023, focuses on essential aspects that settings must consider.

Exploring the Key Ideas

In recent times, schools have seen more children expressing uncertainty about their gender identity. This has led to important discussions within schools and colleges about how best to respond. These conversations are happening against the backdrop of broader societal discussions on gender identity. Some people believe that a person's gender may be different from their biological sex, but this idea isn't universally accepted. Critics argue that it might unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and societal norms about sex.

A set of five main principles has been outlined in the guidance to assist schools in handling these situations. These principles form a structured approach, providing schools with a framework to navigate these complex and sensitive issues. Let's take a closer look at these principles:

1. Looking Out for Children: Balancing Best Interests
The first principle emphasises that schools have a duty to protect and promote the well-being of all children. This means carefully considering the child making the request and making sure any decisions align with what's best for the child and their peers. It stresses the importance of knowing a child's biological sex for safeguarding purposes.
2. Creating a Respectful Environment: A Kind Community
Schools are encouraged to foster an environment of respect and tolerance. Bullying is strongly condemned, and everyone is expected to treat each other with compassion. This principle reflects the broader goal of creating inclusive and supportive spaces within schools.
3. Involving Parents: Making Decisions Together
The third principle recognises the significance of parental involvement. It asserts that parents should be part of decisions related to a child's social transition. Collaboration is seen as crucial, except in rare cases where involving parents might harm the child. The guidance emphasises the importance of open communication between schools and families.
4. Understanding the Law: Staying Grounded in Reality
This principle serves as a reminder that schools operate within a specific legal framework. While adults can change their legal sex through a process, children's legal sex legally remains tied to their biological sex. This highlights the importance of recognising and following legal obligations based on a child's biological sex.
5. Being Cautious in Social Transitioning: A Careful Approach
The final principle emphasises that there's no general obligation to allow a child to 'socially transition.' The guidance advocates for a cautious approach aligned with legal duties, recognising the potential impact of social transition on a child's development. Schools are urged to consider their statutory responsibilities carefully.

Clear Communication and Considerate Approaches

The guidance pays close attention to language and terminology, acknowledging the evolving nature of discussions around gender identity. It avoids using colloquialisms and aims to capture the diverse range of children's experiences. Notably, it refrains from using the term 'transgender' for children, emphasising the legal constraints on children obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate.

Responding Thoughtfully to Requests and Involving Parents

The guidance outlines a careful process for schools to follow when responding to requests for social transition. It stresses the importance of not taking proactive action and waiting for explicit requests from the child. The concept of 'watchful waiting' is introduced, allowing time to ensure that the decision to socially transition is well-thought-out and sustained.

The guidance places a significant focus on involving parents in the decision-making process, except in rare circumstances where parental involvement might pose a risk to the child. The child's age, available clinical information, and potential impact on the child and the school community are all carefully considered.

Handling Different Situations: A Comprehensive Approach

The guidance explores specific aspects of handling requests, such as registration of name and sex, changing names and pronouns, accessing single-sex spaces, and uniform considerations. It emphasises the importance of accurately recording a child's sex for safeguarding purposes while allowing flexibility for a child's informal name change with due consideration.

Regarding pronouns, the guidance suggests that schools carefully consider requests, consulting parents and evaluating the impact on both the individual child and the broader school community. Importantly, it recognises that decisions on pronouns may be infrequent and should not compel others to use preferred pronouns against their beliefs.

Ensuring Safety and Fairness in Spaces and Activities

The guidance outlines clear rules to protect the privacy and safety of all children when addressing concerns related to single-sex spaces and activities. It emphasises that schools should not allow access to spaces designated for the opposite sex, promoting alternative arrangements where necessary.

The guidance extends its considerations to boarding and residential accommodations, ensuring that the allocation of sleeping arrangements aligns with safeguarding obligations. Notably, it highlights the need to provide alternative arrangements that do not compromise the child's or other pupils' safety, comfort, privacy, or dignity.

Uniforms, Physical Education, and Sport: Prioritising Equality and Safety

The guidance provides comprehensive insights into handling uniform considerations and advocating for fairness and equality. While schools determine their own uniform rules, any changes should be made following proper consultation with the child's parents and considering various factors.

The guidance in physical education and sports highlights the importance of providing equal sporting opportunities while acknowledging the physical differences that emerge as children grow older. It emphasises the need for separate-sex participation in certain sports to ensure safety and fairness, particularly as children approach puberty.

Balancing Exemptions and Inclusivity in Single-Sex Schools

The guidance addresses the unique considerations for single-sex schools, acknowledging their ability to refuse admission to pupils of the opposite biological sex. It clarifies that questioning one's gender cannot be a basis for refusing admission. The process outlined in the guidance should still apply to those children. The guidance emphasises that admitting pupils of the opposite biological sex can be exceptional, preserving the single-sex status of the school within legal frameworks.

To conclude, this guidance provides schools and colleges with a comprehensive guide to navigating the complex landscape of gender identity requests. By emphasising the importance of a child's best interests, collaboration with parents, adherence to legal frameworks, and a cautious approach to social transitioning, the guidance aims to foster an inclusive and supportive environment within educational institutions. As schools grapple with evolving societal perspectives on gender identity, this framework may help as a tool for promoting respect, understanding, and equality within the educational landscape.

The consultation on the draft gudance is open for 12 weeks.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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