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DfE swerves calls for transgender pupil support ‘clarity’

The Department for Education has insisted it is up to schools to provide the appropriate support for transgender pupils experiencing mental health issues, despite a coroner’s call for “clarity” over counselling provision after a 13-year-old died.

Outwood Academy Shafton pupil Alex Dews fell from a bridge in Barnsley in July 2022. Coroner Abigail Combes concluded it was “not clear” if he intended to end his life.

Alex had received six weeks’ counselling after telling school staff he wanted to kill himself in March of that year. He had previously been placed on a waiting list for the school’s counselling service, iSpace.

But Alex’s grandmother Susan Dews, 64, of Wakefield, believes he needed more “specialist” support and claims he “fell through the cracks”.

Combes raised concerns to the DfE, the academy and the Department for Health and Social Care in a ‘prevention of future deaths’ report in October.

She told the DfE that “there is a lack of clarity around what should be in place in school in terms of counselling for those who may be transgender or questioning their identity or whether this is solely a role for children and adolescent mental health services”.

Combes said: “The provision of support services in school is not clear and consistent.” Additionally, Alex’s school “had to put in place their own provision as the local procurement was delayed”.

Alex was born female but in “his teenage years he identified as male”. His mother notified the school of a change of name at his request, Combes noted.

DfE ‘not prescriptive’ in what support schools use

On the coroner’s call for “clarity” from the DfE, Susan Dews told Schools Week: “It does need to be clearer who and what is provided, and who provides the funding, and that it shouldn’t have to necessarily come out of the school budget. 

“It’s good that the school did put that in place because otherwise there would have been nothing for Alex, but it wasn’t enough, more was needed.

“I think there needs to be probably some speciality there… I don’t think they even looked at the transgender side of it because Alex didn’t feel comfortable enough with the counsellor because he wasn’t there long enough.”

In its response to the coroner, published last week, the DfE said it is “not prescriptive in what support services schools can use – that authority is delegated to school leaders to ensure that the support is tailored for children by those who know them best”. 

“Schools have delegated budgets to make those decisions and should escalate cases to children’s social care or to child and adolescent mental health services when there is cause for concern over and above the support that a school puts in place.”

The department “seeks to give school leaders as much flexibility as possible in deciding appropriate support managed within the school… governed by a statutory safeguarding framework that operates inside a much broader safeguarding system,” the letter said.

Long-awaited draft transgender guidance, published last month, is now out for consultation. It sets out how schools should respond to gender-questioning pupils, but does not mention counselling provision. 

However, Schools Week revealed last month how the DfE’s own lawyers had warned several elements of the guidance would leave schools at high risk of facing a legal challenge and losing.

‘Schools are trying to piece together best practice’

Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which runs Alex’s school, highlighted the-then lack of DfE trans guidance for schools in its response to the coroner.

“It is felt that this guidance is long overdue and that schools are trying hard to piece together best practice in the absence of any official stance or response,” it said.

Dews said delays to the to the guidance being published made her “really angry”.

“I lost a grandson because they dithered,” she added. “I’m not saying it would have solved the problem, but it might have helped.”

She said Alex was “so bright” and “special” with “a lot of potential”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, called for the government to “accelerate the roll-out” of mental health support in all schools after the “desperately sad tragedy”.

When asked about mental health support for transgender pupils this week, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “We need to focus on children’s wellbeing as being our starting point.”

She also criticised the “culture wars” narrative surrounding the issue “when this is about children’s life chances”.

An Outwood Grange Academies Trust spokesperson said: “Our thoughts remain with Alex’s family, as well as other young people and families in need of support.”

A DfE spokesperson said the “safety and wellbeing of all children will always be our primary concern”.

Mental health lead training will be offered to all schools by 2025 and new support teams will cover at least half of pupils by the end of March next year.

Samaritans are available 365 days a year. You can reach them on free call number 116 123, email them at [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

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