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Schools: Gender-questioning Children

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 22 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are planning to issue further guidance to ensure that schools support gender-questioning children.

My Lords, following calls from schools, teachers and parents to support schools and colleges in relation to children who are questioning their gender, on 19 December 2023 we published draft guidance for consultation. The consultation will close on 12 March. Relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance is also under review, and we will launch a consultation shortly. As part of this, we are looking to strengthen the guidance to schools on how to teach this sensitive topic.

I thank the Minister for her reply and the department for the clear guidance on working with gender-questioning children. Parents really were so relieved to hear that they should be fully involved if their own children decide they want to change gender, and it is so useful to have clarity that schools should not automatically socially transition pupils and that teachers and children should not be compelled to use opposite-sex pronouns. However, does the Minister find it troubling that, since publication, a variety of lobby groups and commercial providers are targeting school SLTs, advising them to ignore and even resist the guidance? Can the Minister assure us that the DfE will counter misinformation circulated by the likes of Mermaids, Just Like Us, Stonewall, The Key and even trade unions that wrongfully alleges the guidance is in breach of equality law, discriminatory and transphobic? Will she condemn attempts to scare teaching staff by suggesting that following the guidance puts them at risk of action by regulators and litigators?

Schools are expected to consider all the guidance from the department, and this is no exception: we would expect them to follow the final published guidance. As the noble Baroness says, the anecdotes we hear are that the guidance is already having an impact on parents, who feel able to ask schools to account for their decisions. Once the guidance is published, if individuals are worried, they should talk to their school about it. I looked at some of the campaigns being run and some of the templates that charities have published. Personally, I share the noble Baroness’s concern that they are quite oppositional in tone and are pitting parents against schools, which the guidance explicitly tries to avoid.

My Lords, my understanding is that the existing review is still out for consultation, so the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, might be jumping the gun a bit by asking whether the Government plan a further review. All her concerns are, of course, noted. While we are waiting, I ask the Minister: were children and young people consulted in the creation of the guidelines that are out for consultation now?

The department typically works through a range of stakeholder groups, including those that represent the voice of children. There have been direct conversations with children on these issues.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that schools must strongly discourage school-age children from taking any steps towards gender transition until their late 20s, by which time the decision-making part of their brain—the prefrontal cortex—will be fully developed?

The guidance is very clear that each case should be taken individually. The safety and well-being of children must always be our primary concern, which is why that is at the heart of the guidance. Some of the medical steps to which the noble Baroness refers are implicit in that safety and well-being focus.

My Lords, Labour welcomes the consultation on the guidance. It is clear that schools want greater clarity on how to approach what is, as the Minister said, often a sensitive and difficult issue. As someone who has two honorary nieces who are trans, I find that the tone of the debate often ignores the fact that this is about individuals and how we treat them. It is hard to ignore the fact that transphobia was an aggravating factor in the horrific murder of Brianna Ghey. I am confident from her response so far that the Minister agrees, but can she confirm that the guidance will ensure that dignity and respect are at its heart?

The noble Baroness will have seen from the guidance the principles that underpin it. It is absolutely clear that schools and colleges should be respectful and tolerant places where bullying is never tolerated.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the need of parents to safeguard and guide their children, as provided for in instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, will be preserved, and that compliance with the guidance should be made statutory? Finally, can she assure the House that the operation of and compliance with the guidance will be subject to Ofsted inspection?

The noble Baroness raises a number of points. Schools already have very clear statutory duties in relation to safeguarding. Although, going back to the initial Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, this is non-statutory guidance, all our non-statutory guidance seeks to support schools in their statutory obligations, where the safety and well-being of the child are paramount.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in condemning Mermaids’ practice of going into primary school reception classes and suggesting to four year-olds—including my own granddaughter, in a rural Suffolk primary school—that if they wish to, they can change their gender at any stage? This is inappropriate for four year-olds.

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. Again, the guidance is clear that schools should not agree to support any degree of social transition for a primary school child unless it is explicitly required to safeguard and promote their welfare.

My Lords, I commend the approach of my noble friend on the Front Bench, and I have some sympathy with the Government. In 2000, when we issued the first ever Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, it caused all kinds of division. I hope the Minister agrees—and this applies to politics more broadly— that we must try to come to a consensus and find agreement, rather than following the terrible current trend of looking at what divides us.

My Lords, following on from the observation of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, does my noble friend agree that for 90% of children suffering from gender dysphoria, it passes once they mature, and that maturation comes in their very early 20s?

The honest answer to my noble friend is that there is still insufficient evidence to make such a definitive statement. My right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, in her letter to the Women and Equalities Select Committee, wrote that

“studies have found a link between gender non-conformity in childhood and someone later coming out as gay”,

and certainly that

“A young person and their family may notice that they are gender non-conforming earlier than they are aware of their developing sexual orientation. If gender non-conformity is misinterpreted as evidence of being transgender … the child may not have had a chance to identify, come to terms with or explore a same-sex orientation”.

My Lords, if, as the Minister has accepted and as has been expounded by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, a forceful lobbying campaign by groups is anticipated, why have the Government decided to make this guidance non-statutory? Surely, if the Government anticipate widespread resistance to it, at least from these lobbying groups, the answer would be to make the guidance statutory.

I understand the noble Lord’s point, but our expectation is that schools, as I said in my response to the noble Baroness, will comply with the guidance. The guidance is very clear, so parents and teachers can take confidence. Obviously, the point of the consultation is to give all parties a voice, but we will make sure that our statutory safeguarding guidance is completely aligned with this non-statutory guidance.