School leaders have described advice from the attorney general to “take a much firmer line” with pupils who identify as transgender as “unhelpful” and potentially damaging to children’s mental health.
In an interview last week, Suella Braverman said schools in England do not have to accommodate pupils who want to change gender, and are under no legal obligation to address them by a new pronoun or let them wear a different uniform.
Headteachers, however, who are increasingly having to navigate their way through these issues, fear that not listening to young people “would risk damaging mental health” at a time when pupils have already suffered during the pandemic.
The attorney general told the Times that under the law, under-18s cannot legally change their gender, so schools are entitled to treat all children by the gender of their birth. She also said some teachers were effectively encouraging gender dysphoria by taking an “unquestioning” attitude.
This prompted criticism from Caroline Derbyshire, the executive head at Saffron Walden county high school, leader of the Saffron academy trust and chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable – a non-party-political headteachers’ group operating as a thinktank.
She said: “No good can come of any young person being forced to adopt a gender they feel miserable with. It certainly won’t improve their learning.
“Schools do all kinds of things to safeguard the welfare of young people that they are not ‘bound’ to do by law,” she went on. “I am a believer in rules and following them, but I think that not listening to young people and their parents on this quite particular and personal matter would risk damaging mental health.”
Braverman also said girls’ toilets and changing rooms had legal protections as safe spaces if a scenario arose where a child born male wanted to use them.
“The availability of single-cubicle gender-neutral toilets and changing spaces avoids anxieties for all those who are not happy with single-sex facilities,” said Derbyshire. “The story is an attempt to whip up an anti-woke culture war, and in schools we are not really interested in this kind of silliness. Young people have been through enough.”
Braverman’s comments have been described as the most forthright intervention by a minister on the issue, and appear to be somewhat at odds with the Department for Education, which is drawing up formal guidance for schools.
“Schools should be a safe and welcoming space for all pupils, regardless of how they identify,” a DfE spokesperson said. “We recognise that gender identity can be a complex and sensitive topic for schools to navigate, which is why we will be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make sure we are giving the clearest possible guidance to schools.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Suella Braverman’s comments encouraging schools to take ‘a much firmer line’ on trans pupils are unhelpful, particularly as they appear to contradict comments made by education secretary Nadhim Zahawi.
“Schools and colleges are doing their very best to navigate this sensitive and often contentious territory in the best interests of all their pupils, but they are having to make decisions without any reference point, and are consequently at risk of being criticised whatever decisions they make and policies they adopt.
“What is needed is national guidance on these issues rather than individual pronouncements which serve only to further muddy the waters.”
Natalie Arnett, senior equalities officer at the National Association of Head Teachers, said school leaders were contacting the union seeking advice on the legal and safeguarding implications of situations involving transgender pupils, such as admission to single-sex schools, participation in sport, toilets and changing rooms, and the organisation of trips involving shared accommodation.
“While there is access to guidance which covers many of the broad issues involved in supporting trans pupils, what is lacking is advice from a respected and knowledgable body on the legal issues they need to consider when making decisions in this area.”
Some schools have already adapted their uniform codes to remove distinctions between boys’ and girls’ schoolwear in an effort to accommodate transgender students. Dysphoric or transgender pupils at Brighton College, a private day and boarding school that takes pupils from reception to sixth form, can choose between wearing a traditional blazer, tie and trousers, or skirt and bolero jacket.