England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Culture war hits schools and colleges: Defend trans students!

By Socialist Alternative members in the National Education Union (NEU)

It may be nearly Christmas but the culture war continues. Yesterday the Department for Education issued much-trumpeted and much-delayed new non-statutory guidance for schools on how to support trans and non-binary students. It is clearly a further attack from the Tories and one that puts young students in grave danger. It calls for a strict limit on the ability of young people to ‘socially transition’, encourages dead naming trans students, and insists on single sex spaces being maintained based on ‘biological’ sex. Furthermore it states that parents must be informed where young people adopt a name or pronoun at school different from their birth gender. This despite the fact that many gender nonconforming young people may fear rejection, punishment or abuse from parents or carers who disapprove. 

War against young trans and non-binary students

Despite this being a step back from what some right-wing Tories wanted, namely a complete ban on schools being a space where young people could ‘socially transition’, it would appear that in the months-long battle over the guidance the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has partially resisted some more extreme demands from the mis-named Minister for Women and Equalities Kemi Badenoch, but still dangerous and must be challenged nonetheless. The guidance still makes it clear that no school is under an obligation to allow pupils to change uniform, names or pronouns. This is an invitation to schools to ‘go to war’ with potentially vulnerable young people in a similar way to the anachronistic rules about hair and dress that are used to humiliate and discipline black children. Disgracefully teachers are being instructed to question the authenticity of students who say they wish to socially transition and decide whether they can or not without any training or specialism whatsoever, despite research showing over half of trans students have attempted suicide. 

For many young people, school provides a supportive environment where they can test out a new identity, and where teachers and support staff will respect them. Even in progressive schools young people who socially transition may still face bullying from classmates, which teachers need to be able to tackle robustly and confidently without wondering whether the school in some way disapproves of trans and non-binary students. Clear messages of respect and support will be muddied if this guidance is implemented.

Tory threats

The Tories have been threatening to release guidance – which was always going to be an attack on trans and non-binary students – since last July, at the end of a school year when teacher militancy reached a high point. Now it is being issued when in some areas schools are already closed, in the closing days of the term for the rest of schools, and just before Christmas in the hope it won’t be noticed, but which also cuts the time for a co-ordinated response from unions and students. There will be a 12 week period of consultation and it would seem the launching of the guidance is more for public consumption in the run-up to a general election where the Tories see demonising ‘boat’ people and trans children as their only hope of salvaging a result.

Time to launch a mass fightback

The NEU and other education unions alongside support staff unions including UNISON, Unite and GMB should continue to take a clear stand and call on schools and educators not to implement the government’s non-statutory guidance. Links need to be made with students and parents to discuss and organise a fightback, to make these proposals unworkable. The NEU has very good LGBT+ inclusion guidance and a LGBT+ inclusion charter available to all schools. The unions should also mount a concerted pressure on Labour, where Starmer already has a transphobic record, to rescind the guidance on taking office.

A mass campaign can stop these transphobic attacks, to make our schools and wider communities safe for everyone, so no one has to live in fear

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