The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Richard Palmer

Transgender issues and what schools can do

Trans identity is highly contested and political. Richard Palmer will explore some of the complexities and competing agendas for schools.


Currently, there is no definitive DfE guidance about supporting trans pupils in school, or how at all, trans identity should be included in the curriculum. Many schools have pieced together their policies and procedures sourcing what they can from local authorities, public health and the third sector. This has left some open to challenge by parents concerned about student safeguarding. 

In the absence of the long-awaited ‘trans guidance’ from the DfE, a collective of teaching unions and education bodies released ‘Guidance for maintained schools and academies in England on provision for transgender pupils’.

Challenges for guidance

Aspects of this guidance have been challenged by campaign organisations, such as the Safe Schools Alliance. Politically led think tanks Policy Exchange and New Social Covenant continue to interrogate current school practices around trans inclusion, and how best to support students questioning their gender or those with a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

The statutory elements of PSHE, as described in the guidance for Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) (DfE, 2020) are also under review. The three-year review period has always been policy, but recent concerns raised by parents and some members of parliament about ‘inappropriate teaching’ have given this higher profile. 

This continues to leave schools in limbo.  

Informing parents or not? 

What should a teacher do if a trans student ‘comes out’ at school? Some schools have withheld this information from parents citing it’s a safeguarding matter. A student felt the gender they identify with won’t be accepted at home or there is a risk of harm? 

On the other side, parents have a right to know what’s happening with their children, so where do schools need to draw the ‘safeguarding line’? Will the forthcoming DfE guidance make allowances for schools to manage this on a case-by-case basis? 

This is no different to how safeguarding incidents are handled currently as set out in KCSIE. Yet, even with guidance in place incidences will occur where teachers are required to make a judgement call. The public consultation on the DfE trans guidance is an opportunity to highlight the need for effective teacher CPD on this complex issue alongside the release of the finalised documentation.  

Teachers should be trained appropriately to deliver sensitive content in PSHE

Conflict with teacher values 

In the world of PSHE, it’s not unusual for some teachers to feel uncomfortable with the content they are expected to teach. We see that trans is a polarising issue played out in the media and online, so inevitably there will be teachers in several camps.  

Within the new DfE guidance documents, there may be elements that continue to be questioned and potentially opposed. All students are entitled to safe, relevant PSHE lessons that support their long-term wellbeing. This should be delivered by enthusiastic, well-trained teachers. 

If a member of staff fundamentally disagrees with the agreed DfE content in the revised guidance, what then? Should they be expected to ‘park their values’? Many schools don’t have the luxury of offering staff the option to opt out of PSHE topics they are uncomfortable with, leaving some in a compromised position. 

While there can be disagreements about the content of RSHE between stakeholders, there is a point of shared consensus, that teachers should be trained appropriately to deliver sensitive content in PSHE. and this should begin during initial teacher education. 

We should be moving away from a model where anyone and everyone is expected to teach PSHE, to a point where there are specialised teams in every school. Again, the public consultation on the RSHE guidance provides us with an opportunity to call for effective teacher training. 

There are several high-profile cases where staff have been disciplined for ‘deadnaming’ or ‘misgendering’ students. Deadnaming is where an individual does not use the preferred pronoun or first name of a trans person. 

As many teaching staff are grappling with this fast-moving vocabulary, inevitably there will be innocent mistakes in the use of language. Conversely, some teachers have deliberately chosen not to use a student’s preferred name/pronoun on a point of principle. Teachers will be anticipating clear guidance on this matter.  

Trans in the curriculum 

Some are calling for education about trans identities to be removed from PSHE as they feel it is an ideology that has the potential to harm and confuse students. On the other side are those who feel that people with trans identities exist in society, so PSHE should prepare students for learning and working alongside them. 

Some argue that students who are questioning their gender should be given appropriate education, including signposting to sources of support. This advice may not be forthcoming from home, and unless covered in school may leave students to independently source inappropriate content elsewhere.  

The current messaging from DfE suggests that age limits around certain topics in RSHE are likely to be introduced. There is a high probability that trans will be one of these subjects, given the announcement on May 31 of the expert panel to head up the RSHE review (DfE, 2023). While age limits may appear to add clarity to the current version of the RSHE guidance they are not without challenges. 

The review of RSHE is pushing ahead with the DfE announcing that the initial work will be completed by 23 September

Putting a blanket ‘ban’ on something rarely covers all eventualities so will there be flexibility in the system? What about schools that already have ‘out’ trans students? Will teachers feel constrained and how might this impact the inclusion of these students? 

The introduction of age limits in the RSHE curriculum has been questioned by some who cite that it is reminiscent of Section 28. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was passed in May 1988. This policy banned Local Authorities from 'promoting homosexuality' and schools were not permitted to 'promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'. 

The law was eventually repealed in 2003. Those who were at school during the policy’s lifetime reported feeling like second-class citizens, and teachers were on-guard to ensure they did not fall foul of the law.

 What next? 

Gillian Keegan recently reported that consultation on trans guidance is likely to be a ‘long’ process. With no definite timescale announced, this legislation has the potential to reach purdah as the general election approaches.

The review of RSHE is pushing ahead with the DfE announcing that the initial work will be completed by 23 September followed by a public consultation. 

Regardless of when any new guidance is eventually published, it will contain some compromises. We can only hope these will be accepted by stakeholders, and schools will have conclusive guidance everyone signs up to. The alternative is continuing the current toxic and polarised debate around transgender inclusion and education in schools. 

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