Rishi Sunak has pledged to publish guidance for schools on issues around gender identity within weeks after teaching leaders accused the government of dragging its feet and leaving schools “in the crossfire”.
It comes after a thinktank said safeguarding principles were being “routinely disregarded in many secondary schools” when it came to gender identity.
A paper from the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank said a number of secondary schools were not informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender identity. The research was based on responses to freedom of information (FoI) requests from 154 out of England’s 24,000 schools.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools were making significant efforts to provide support and care to pupils, but that the report was contributing to creating a difficult environment dominated by strongly held opposing views.
“Schools work very hard to be sensitive to the needs of pupils questioning their gender identity,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are endeavouring to do this in the context of a public minefield of strongly held and opposing views, of which this report from a thinktank is yet another example.”
The prime minister, asked about the report during a visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Oxfordshire, said the government was already reviewing relationships and sex education guidance to make sure that it was age-appropriate for children.
He added: “For the summer term we will make sure that we publish guidance for schools so that they know how to respond when children are asking about their gender. These are really sensitive areas, it’s important that we treat them sensitively, and that parents know what’s going on.”
Dozens of organisations wrote to the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, last week to urge her not let culture wars weaken sex education after Sunak’s announcement of the review, saying that England’s schools had a vital role in tackling misogyny and abuse.
Barton said the guidance promised by Sunak had been under discussion for several years. “This is clearly needed so that schools are able to draw on an established set of guidelines rather than constantly being caught in the crossfire between opposing views and beliefs.”
Policy Exchange said only 28% of the secondary schools that responded to the request were reliably informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender. According to the report, about 28% of secondary schools were not maintaining single-sex toilets and 19% were not maintaining single-sex changing rooms.
It stated: “Overall, schools were more likely to retain single-sex provision in all three element [toilets, changing rooms and sports].”
It added that a “number” of schools responded that while they would not allow a child to use “the facilities of the opposite sex, alternative facilities would be provided if the child felt uncomfortable using the facilities of their biological sex”. A small number of secondary schools stated that all toilets were unisex and there were no same-sex facilities, according to the report, which it said was “a potential breach of the law”.
The report concluded: “Our research reveals there to be a safeguarding blind spot when it comes to the issue of sex and gender. Safeguarding principles are being routinely disregarded in many secondary schools, which are neglecting their safeguarding responsibilities and principles in favour of a set of contested beliefs, in ways that risk jeopardising child wellbeing and safety.”
A spokesperson for LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall said the government’s own statutory guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Education stated that LGBTQ+ children were at risk of being targeted at school, and having a trusted adult at school reduced that risk of harm.
“If LGBTQ+ children are to have the same opportunity to thrive as any other child, it is essential that they have the space to speak out and share their concerns, and that school staff have the tools they need,” they said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The education secretary is working closely with the minister for women and equalities to produce guidance for schools, which we will be consulting on shortly. In the meantime, we are clear that schools should make sure they work with parents, pupils and public services to decide what is best for individual children.”