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Nadhim Zahawi said frontline school staff who have to make decisions such as which changing rooms trans pupils can use need proper guidance from the government to help them deal with questions about gender and sex confidently.
Speaking at the Education select committee on Wednesday Mr Zahawi admitted it is incumbent on him and his department to come up with guidance to support teachers, and he is working with agencies including the Equality and Human Rights Commission to do so.
Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson told Mr Zahawi she had been approached by parents concerned that their teenage daughters were in a boarding house with a male student who is trans.
She said: “He had been provided with en-suite accommodation in recognition of his needs and privacy, but the young ladies were required to walk to the communal showers in towels along the corridor, many of them felt uncomfortable but were bullied if they said so…Do you think male students should have access to areas in which teenage girls, school age girls, are in a state of undress or potential undress?”
Mr Zahawi said he is working with the EHRC on issues such as this because they have the “capacity and expertise” to deal with it. He added: “A trans student has to be protected, has to be dealt with in a way that is appropriate and delivers all the protections that are right. But I also think it’s equally important that the frontline feel supported and informed as to how to deal with these particular situations - whether it be the one you outlined, or in terms of changing rooms in school.”
He said there are ways of accommodating trans students in single sex changing rooms, for example allowing the trans student to get changed before the girls go in.
He added: “What I want to try and get to is the guidelines being really clear because I think it’s incumbent on us - we have the capacity to do this and do it well, to allow the frontline to feel they have the backing and confidence of the department to be able to make those decision and make them confidently.”
Conservative MP Miriam Cates highlighted research that found some teachers are not telling parents if their child is trans, calling it a “huge safeguarding fail.”
Questioning whether children should be taught about gender ideology in schools she said: “You have got pre-pubescent, pubescent children who don’t have a settled idea of sexuality or gender. They are children in a discovery phase and they are being told by adults that they trust that if they don’t conform to certain gender norms they may be the opposite sex or they may be non-binary or they may need to go away and explore more.
“And they go away and they look on the internet and they engage in platforms like Reddit and TikTok and Discord where they meet adults who tell them how to obtain testosterone, how to go down a route of surgery…they are going down a route of transition…and this is an enormous safeguarding risk because they are leading to permanent changes.
“Then they go back to school and tell the school ‘I am trans’, and they are then being excluded from normal safeguarding procedures.”
She added: “A lot of these children are autistic so they are latching onto ideas of why they might be different…Socially transitioning a child is not a neutral act. It has long term consequences. It is natural for children to be questioning sexuality and gender and all those kinds of things aged 11 or 12.”
Mr Zahawi said parents must be “front and centre” of discussions about gender and sex, saying: “That’s my message to the frontline, is to say you have to involve parents in this. You have a duty to safeguard those children. Parents are very much part of that.”
Referring to guidance for teachers, Mr Zahawi said: “We are doing the work right now. Hopefully we should be able to issue that guidance as soon as we have done the work.”
Mr Zahawi’s comments come after children’s minister Will Quince described the situation of trans pupils being allowed to access single sex spaces as “ a bit of a minefield”. Speaking to the same committee last month he said he “probably wouldn’t be overly happy” for his daughters to share a boarding house with a pupil identifying as a trans girl.”