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Church schools to be given new guidance on gender-based bullying

05 July 2024

Church of England

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Jonathan Frost, who chairs the National Society and is lead bishop on education

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Jonathan Frost, who chairs the National Society and is lead bishop on education

THE Church’s National Society for education has released new anti-bullying guidance for church schools, including revised advice on how to support gender-questioning pupils.

The draft guidance, Flourishing for All, published on Friday, is informed by both the latest government guidance on the issue and the final report and recommendations to NHS England from Dr Hilary Cass.

Pending a period of consultation and final approval, it will be rolled out to the C of E’s 4623 schools in September.

Flourishing for All replaces Valuing All God’s Children, first published in 2014 in response to research that suggested that homophobic bullying was on the rise in church schools (News, 16 May 2014). It was rewritten in 2017 and revised in 2019.

More recently, the document had been criticised by pressure groups who claimed that it endorsed gender transition in young children. The Church’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, denied this, and its use of gender-affirming language (News, 4 November 2022).

NHS doctors stopped prescribing puberty-blocking hormones to young people with gender dysphoria on 1 April, referring to safety concerns. Ten days later, the independent review chaired by Dr Cass found that gender services for children were steered by ideology rather than “normal principles of paediatrics and mental health”.

In his introduction to the new guidance, Mr Genders is clear about the fast pace of change on the issues over the past decade. “The debate about human sexuality, and especially gender, has frequently been toxic and polarised, which does nothing to help the young people caught in the middle and whose well-being should be our first priority.

“Over those ten years, terminology and understanding has evolved, and the real and virtual world in which our children and young people grow up has also transformed at an incredible rate.” He refers to developments in technology and social media, “where cyberbullying is having an alarming impact on the mental health of children and young people”.

In his foreword, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Jonathan Frost, who chairs the National Society and is lead bishop on education, writes: “Bullying has no place in our schools. Every child deserves to learn in an environment where they are loved, supported, and respected.”

The 58-page document is split into two sections: first, an overview of key terms, forms of bullying, duties of church schools, and general principles of a Christian approach; second, guidance for preventing and tackling homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying in schools.

An accompanying note says that further sections are to be added “in the coming months” to address “bullying on the basis of protected characteristics, including race, special educational needs and disability, religion and belief, as well as sexist bullying and sexual harassment”.

Part one states: “The starting point for tackling all forms of bullying is a welcoming and inclusive culture in which all pupils and adults feel a sense of belonging.” Schools should recognise that some groups are more vulnerable than others, and that the elimination of bullying should “go beyond compliance to deep compassion”.

Part two states: “Gender questioning children and transgender adults are at the highest risk of bullying and therefore need particular pastoral support and protection.”

It goes on to say that: “Although there are different viewpoints on human sexuality and gender identity within the Church of England, as well as in other faith communities and society at large, it is never acceptable for children, young people or adults who are LGBT+ to be bullied at school.”

Church schools, it continues, must challenge physical harm or sexual harassment; discriminatory and dehumanising language; repeated mis-naming which is deliberate and intended to cause harm; and cyberbullying towards “gender-questioning children, those who have already socially transitioned, and transgender adults”.

Also, “every effort” should be made by church schools to make “any alternative arrangements for gender-questioning pupils (such as individual changing rooms, toilets and showers in school or sleeping arrangements on residential trips) . . . careful not to do so in a way that reinforces any sense of exclusion a pupil may feel by being singled out”.

Government guidance advises schools to undertake a period of “watchful waiting” after any request from a gender-questioning pupil.

Flourishing for All states: “If a school follows this path, it is critical that the school proactively engages with the child or young person so they know they have been heard, and ensures that they are kept safe from any harm or bullying behaviours by making planned and regular checks.

“They should not wait for bullying to be reported, but understand this is a particularly vulnerable time for that child or young person. Whenever possible, this should include working with the child or young person’s family (unless to do so would place the child or young person at risk).”

Both the new guidance and the Cass review were the subject of six of the 221 questions posed by General Synod members ahead of its five-day meeting, beginning in York on Friday. The written answers were published on Thursday.

Bishop Frost responded to questions put to the National Society, including from members who were critical of the previous guidance, which he defends. “Valuing All God’s Children did not advise a particular approach to responding to gender questioning children,” he writes, “but the absence of government guidance on the subject [at the time] has led to some commentators assuming that was its purpose despite this never being the case.” Valuing All God’s Children would be replaced once the General Election had concluded.

Rebecca Hunt (Portsmouth) suggested that the issuing of new guidance was in part a response to the case of Nigel and Sally Rowe, a Christian couple on the Isle of Wight who withdrew their six-year-old son from a C of E school in 2017, pending a legal review of the school’s decision to allow its pupils to dress gender-fluidly (News, 15 September 2017).

“The suggestion that gender is fluid conflicts sharply with our Christian beliefs as a family,” Mr Rowe said at the time. The school stated that a refusal to acknowledge transgender or gender-fluid pupils constituted “transphobic behaviour” and was not in the best interests of the child. A judicial review is pending.

Ms Hunt asked whether the diocese of Portsmouth would be apologising for its response.

Bishop Frost said: “We are issuing new guidance, not for all the reasons suggested in the question, but certainly following government draft guidance” and the Cass review, which, he pointed out, “says that the toxicity of the debate is exceptional and leads to some of the worst bullying behaviour”.

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