Teachers in England are warning that young people could be put at risk of harm and homelessness if the government presses ahead with new guidance compelling schools to inform parents if their child is questioning their gender.
Union leaders accused ministers of trying to inflame a culture war around gender issues in schools to distract from their “appalling record on underfunding, pay erosion and teacher shortages”. All unions in England have rejected the government’s latest pay offer for teachers, and fresh strikes are planned for Thursday and Tuesday 2 May.
The government is said to be poised to introduce guidance stating that schools in England must inform parents if a young person seeks to change their name or starts wearing different uniform. Teachers would be instructed not to use a new name or pronoun at a pupil’s request until they have obtained parental consent.
Many teachers are afraid to voice concerns openly because the debate around gender issues has become so heated. But some spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity.
The former head of a sixth form college, who is now an education adviser, said: “The safeguarding issues here are real. One Friday I was working late and a kid arrived who had been really smashed up after telling their parents they were transgender. College was the only place they felt safe.” He accused the government of creating an “atmosphere of fear” in which young people no longer felt they could turn to teachers for support.
“The big danger for teachers will be following this government advice because you can bet the Department for Education [DfE] will hang them out to dry if that phone call home ends up with a child being seriously harmed.”
The deputy head of sixth form at a secondary school in the south-east said it “simply isn’t true” that schools were shutting parents out of conversations on gender, and described the government’s plans as “dangerous”.
“We’ve had threats of violence towards students from parents,” he said. “We’ve had students who aren’t safe to go home and have to stay at friend’s houses because parents have found out they are gay or suspect they are identifying as another gender.”
He stressed that in most cases, if a young person talked to a teacher about changing their gender identity before telling their parents, the school would invite the parent in “to allow a calm conversation with the child to take place”. “There is no indoctrination and we aren’t keeping secrets,” he said. “Teachers are just listening and trying to offer support.”
He is worried that young people who are questioning their gender and do not feel safe at home would no longer feel safe at school either if the new guidance was implemented. “The government is hushing up these issues when the key to all this is communication,” he said.
Another secondary school teacher in the south-east said: “A carte-blanche approach of outing all children to their parents will put a high number at risk.”
The teacher, who is gay, said he worried this would make young people feel they could not be open with teachers about their feelings or questions on gender “in case they are outed”.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The government is using this as a distraction from the disintegration of public services under their watch.”
She said teachers and schools were working with people with “genuine concerns” on both sides of the gender debate, but added: “I have no faith that the government is using those concerns honestly or honourably.”
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union said it had been calling on the government to provide guidance for schools about how best to support transgender pupils and those questioning their gender identity for many years, but ministers had “dithered unhelpfully” and “left schools to navigate this territory entirely on their own”.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the ASCL, said school leaders and teachers must be central to a consultation on any guidance, but warned: “It must not be allowed to distract from the many other issues currently facing the education sector, including the industrial dispute caused by the government’s appalling record on underfunding, pay erosion and teacher shortages.”
A spokesperson for the DfE said: “The education secretary [Gillian Keegan] is working closely with the minister for women and equalities [Kemi Badenoch] to provide guidance for schools in this area, following calls from schools, teachers and parents, based upon the overriding principle of safeguarding children, and it will consider a range of issues.”