Every parent remembers the first time they leave their child at the school gates. It’s a monumental milestone and, when we turn and walk away, we have an unspoken expectation that they will be kept safe from harm while out of our sight.
We trust, too, that the teaching they receive will be clear, age-appropriate and rooted in established facts. But as a parent of three children myself and also as a former therapist who has worked extensively with children at risk, I’ve started to wonder whether it’s safe simply to trust this is the case.
I’m particularly concerned about one new and deeply controversial area of the school curriculum: the teaching on sex, gender and identity in today’s Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) lessons.
And I’m not alone — increasing numbers of parents are sharing concerns both about the content of lessons and the increasingly fevered environment in schools surrounding these topics, which are at the centre of ongoing debate across society. .
Milli Hill (pictured with her three children) investigates how new sex and gender lessons in schools are being taught
Last week it emerged that a private school sixth former who questioned an external speaker’s views on gender was, according to The Times, ‘surrounded by up to 60 girls who shouted, screamed, swore and spat at her’.
The girl was reportedly accused of ‘transphobia’. She collapsed after the incident and has since left the school.
One of her teachers has said, anonymously, that the pupil was treated like a ‘heretic’ and that ‘by kowtowing to ideology and by inviting in activists and propagandists’, schools were ‘failing in their duty of care’.
In a world in which increasing numbers of young people are exploring their gender identity and sexual preference, it’s important for schools to be supportive. However, stories like this suggest some are failing woefully to balance debate.
Schools have been put in a nearly impossible position. In September 2020 — in the middle of the pandemic, which triggered an unprecedented crisis in education — the Government made the teaching of all-new RSHE lessons compulsory across senior schools. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many teachers feel underskilled in this area, given that at universities academics have been hounded out of their jobs for expressing unpopular opinions on gender issues. Instead, many institutions have turned to external agencies to provide teaching materials, staff training and workshops to pupils. There are dozens of groups offering such a service. Some are new, others part of existing services with a background in sexual health or LGBT+ advocacy. However, there is no formal qualification required and no central regulation.
My daughter begged me not to complain
This month, Minister for Schools Robin Walker said his department could not advise schools on the suitability of external resources and that it was down to schools to check credentials. Parents with concerns, he said, should raise them directly with the school.
A Department for Education spokesperson confirmed it was up to schools to vet RSHE content. ‘All schools have a responsibility to ensure that lessons and materials are age-appropriate and factually accurate, particularly when using resources that are produced by external organisations,’ they told me.
Yet without clear guidelines, it’s hard for schools to navigate the complex issues at the centre of a culture war. These include whether children should be taught that people can ‘self identify’ their gender and what young people should learn about various sexual behaviours.
So what are these groups actually teaching? One, the School of Sexuality Education, claims to have delivered workshops to over 67,000 secondary-age children. It was listed as consultant to the Family Sex Show, a touring theatre production that was cancelled last month after nearly 40,000 signed a petition in protest at the nudity and songs about masturbation aimed at children as young as five.
The organisers claimed the show ‘would have offered safe and positive learning to children, young people and guardians about rights, bodies, sex and relationships’.
According to feedback from one workshop attendee on its website, the group’s RSHE lessons ‘acknowledge that not all people with vaginas are female and penis does not equal male’. Some parents say this risks seriously confusing children and is in opposition to Department for Education guidance, which states that all RSHE should be ‘evidence based’.
Minister for Schools Robin Walker said his department could not advise on the suitability of external resources and that it was to schools to check credentials. Many parents are sharing concerns about the content of lessons and the increasingly fevered environment in schools surrounding these topics
The external agencies also cover aspects of sex and sexuality. For example, The Proud Trust promotes use of the ‘dice game’, where children as young as 13 are encouraged to roll two dice bearing the words ‘vulva/ vagina’, ‘penis’, ‘anus’, ‘mouth’, ‘hands/fingers’, and ‘object’ on each of their sides.
Young people are then asked to discuss which sexual activity is possible using the two words that land facing upwards. In spite of the furore created when the dice game was discussed in the Press in August 2020, the resource is still for sale on The Proud Trust website.
It seems clear that some parents will object to this content. Yet both parents and students say they feel unable to challenge what some see as an ideological takeover. It’s telling that every parent I spoke to for this investigation wishes to be anonymous. All shared the same concerns — that if they were named complaining, this could impact negatively on their child’s education. Some felt they had already marked themselves out as ‘a problem’ just by making their views known to staff. Eleanor Morris*, 51, from Hampshire, has a 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter and says she is shocked by ‘how sexualised schools have become’.
She explains: ‘I first realised this when my daughter came back from college saying how much she hated the “furries”. These are students who dress up as fetishised animals —and wear bondage gear. One girl was led around by her boyfriend with a lead around her neck while wearing furry animal ears.
‘The teachers don’t say anything because it’s been normalised. When I wanted to write to complain, my daughter begged me not to, so I kept quiet. But I find the whole thing shocking.’
Eleanor feels her children’s schools are ‘a place of surveillance, where people are constantly checking on each other in case they use the wrong pronoun or say the wrong thing’.
Pronoun advice for primary kids — and a dice game for teens to make your mind boggle
Last year, her daughter was ostracised by her peers for ‘liking’ something on TikTok: ‘It was a Gender Critical person saying, “You couldn’t change sex”. At first, my daughter laughed it off but then [other pupils] started saying she was “definitely a transphobe”. It contributed to her changing from her school’s sixth form to a different college.’
Many parents I spoke to said they felt a lack of support from schools on these matters.
Eleanor continues: ‘In my son’s school, a girl decided she wanted to run as Head Boy because she identified as a boy.
‘She didn’t win in the end. But the fact the school allowed her to run says everything. When I spoke to the teacher about it, I got very short shrift. Why can’t they just pick a “Head Person” if that’s how they want to do it?
‘My daughter tells me one of the girls in her new sixth form college now identifies as a boy and has a new name. This child ran away from home last year and is now living with a trans woman. The school won’t let the parents know their child’s new address.’
The campaigning groups Safe Schools Alliance and Safeguarding Our Schools (SOS) Scotland say they’ve heard from other parents upset not to have been informed that their child was struggling with gender issues.
Various ‘trans toolkits’, developed by agencies such as Allsorts Youth Project and reproduced by local councils, tell schools they should not disclose a child’s ‘trans status’ to parents, because of the child’s right to privacy. ‘Often teachers don’t know where to turn with their concerns,’ says Lucie Phillips of SOS Scotland.
‘Teachers have reported children changing names up to seven times. Parents are not being told and the affirmation of the child’s new identity is simply being accepted. Policies are lacking and data is being compromised by being recorded as gender not sex.’ Typically, schools would be expected to respect a child’s privacy unless there was a potential safeguarding issue. However, there is no Government guidance on whether teachers should tell parents if a child is trans or questioning their gender identity.
The content of lessons is in some cases obscured from parents. One mum, who did not wish to be named, said her child’s primary school in Lambeth, South London, had signed a contract with an external provider called Jigsaw, agreeing it would not distribute teaching materials to parents.
When she became worried about the content of the course, which is said to include a group activity in which a mixed sex group of tenyear-olds discuss masturbation in pairs, she sent the school a freedom of information request, but was told that, after consultation with both Jigsaw and legal specialists, they were unable to allow her to see the course materials.
When I contacted Jigsaw, they stated: ‘Our materials are always welcome to be viewed by parents at any time.’ But they added this could only be done in school in the presence of a teacher, ‘to ensure that nothing is taken out of context’ and because ‘our programme contains Intellectual Property which is protected by copyright’.
Content of some lessons is kept from parents
Jigsaw added that it encourages schools to work with parents and provides leaflets and other materials designed to be shared with parents. They declined to send a copy of their materials to me but offered to arrange a Zoom call where I could view them with a Jigsaw representative.
Other resources for primary school children are available to view online, including posters from The Proud Trust that feature friendly aliens discussing their pronouns, and ask children ‘which pronouns do you want to use?’ Another mum contacted me about her child’s primary school, where she says pupils are encouraged to display their pronouns — he/him, she/her or they/them — alongside their name on their book drawers. The school is working towards a Rainbow Flag Award, a scheme run in several regions of the UK by organisations including The Proud Trust.
For £495 per year, schools can gain access to LGBT+ inclusion training and classroom resources. The school must then work towards achieving the award, set up as a pilot in 2017 with Government funding but now run as a franchise by several charities and not overseen by any external body.
Of course, schools promoting tolerance and inclusion is a positive thing. But this parent says she feels the scheme goes beyond that. ‘I am concerned that this award is influencing my child’s school to teach the concept of gender identity as fact,’ the mum told me. ‘Telling children that they could have an inner gender that doesn’t match their body could be very confusing, in particular for those who, like my own child, are neurodiverse.’
Sexual education information for primary school children. Resources for primary aged children are available to view online, including posters from The Proud Trust that feature friendly aliens discussing their pronouns, and ask children ‘which pronouns do you want to use?’
The award programme is similar to the Stonewall School Champions Scheme, which also charges a fee to rate schools on their ‘LGBT inclusivity’.
Juliet Holmes (an alias) is 46, works in PR and lives in Oxfordshire with daughters Isabel, 15, and Felicity, 13.
She says she thought nothing of it when she noticed Stonewall posters saying ‘Trans Rights are Human Rights’ and ‘Trans Lives Matter’ in her daughters’ singlesex school three years ago.
‘Then Isabel said she’d had a tutoring session all about gender. Her teacher gave a talk, saying the teacher’s own friends had been sharing transphobic messages on social media.
‘She didn’t explain what transphobia was but said it was wrong. Two of the girls apparently said they thought the trans issue might be problematic in areas like sport [if male-bodied athletes compete in women’s events, a current topic of debate], but were told we have to “be kind”. I wrote to the school and said I was concerned about this lesson, but they fobbed me off. My daughter was upset by it. She’s since come out as a lesbian and says she feels like there’s no support for gay girls within the school. Last year during Pride month the school chose Juno Dawson — a trans woman writer — as their “star woman” on the school newsletter.
‘I was furious. Could they not have chosen a lesbian for that particular month? I wrote to the school and Dawson was removed from the newsletter. The school also partnered with EqualiTeach, an organisation that focuses on diversity, equality and inclusion.
Two pages on disability but five on gender
‘My daughter has additional needs so disability has always been an area I’m passionate about, but when I checked EqualiTeach’s website, I felt there was a lot of talk about gender and not enough about disability. There are two pages of search results on disability, five pages on gender and five pages on trans issues.
‘I’ve also noticed that the language within the school has changed. It used to be: ‘Girls can do this’, ‘Girls can achieve that’ — now it’s: ‘Students, people, your children’. The school has always focused on empowering girls, recognising the specific challenges that girls face because of sexism.
‘If you stop using the correct language you can no longer identify those issues.
‘One letter said that according to Ofsted, 90 per cent of students experienced sexual harassment when we know that figure referred to girls. How can we talk about sexual harassment if we are not able to use the correct language?’
Tanya Carter, co-founder of the Safe Schools Alliance, says if parents disagree with this new way of teaching, they must speak up.
‘We must stand up and say “No” to inaccurate information about biology and the eroding of safeguards,’ she says. ‘Children have a right to be protected and if we as adults fail to provide that, we have failed as a society.’
And so the debate intensifies — and with it, the sad reality that school playgrounds have become battlegrounds of ideology, too.
- Some names have been changed