Why DfE dithering is to blame for the trans cat-fight

Cat-identifying children are a distraction from the fact that schools have been left to teach fiction as fact in the absence of clear guidance, writes Helen Joyce

Cat-identifying children are a distraction from the fact that schools have been left to teach fiction as fact in the absence of clear guidance, writes Helen Joyce

9 Jul 2023, 5:00

Many Schools Week readers have probably listened to the recording of a teacher at Rye College arguing with two pupils about sex and gender identity. In it, she is heard saying there are three sexes, male, female and “intersex”; that thinking that a female body makes you a girl and a male body makes you a boy is “despicable”; that she is reporting the girls for these views and they should consider moving school.

Much of the commentary has focused on the pupils’ reductio as absurdum: if a child can identify as the opposite sex or as no sex (“non-binary”), why not as an animal? It’s a good question – and telling that the teacher is unable to answer without bluster and threats – but the partisan media storm that resulted, including an article in these pages last week, is a distraction.

Obviously, the teacher’s response fell below expected professional standards. Even so, I feel sorry for her. She sounds like she is trying to regurgitate half-understood nonsense from an INSET while avoiding saying anything that might get her denounced as a bigot.

And that’s the result of a bigger, more systemic failure: the DfE’s years-long delay in publishing guidance for schools on issues of sex and gender, even as the number of pupils identifying as trans or non-binary soars. Expected this week, it has been delayed again.

What precisely are schools supposed to teach children about the contested notion of “gender identity”? And how are they to accommodate pupils who do not identify as their biological sex?

DfE prevarication leaves school leaders and teachers to make decisions on questions so polarising that whatever they do they risk ending up in the eye of a social-media storm. Meanwhile, LGBT lobby groups have stepped in with proprietary lesson plans that in many cases play fast and loose with biological fact and UK law.

Some make outlandish assertions. One is that biological sex is a social construct; in fact, it evolved 1.2 billion years ago and far predates humans. Another is that sex is “assigned at birth”; in fact, it’s fixed at conception and medical professionals merely record it at birth.

LGBT lobby groups play fast and loose with biological fact and UK law

Some children are being taught that there are more than two sexes or that sex is a spectrum. The Rye College teacher seems to be repeating a common claim that “intersex” conditions – an umbrella term for around 40 disorders of sex development (DSDs) – constitute a third sex. In fact, DSDs are sex-specific. Sex is a reproductive category, and since humans produce precisely two types of gamete, there are precisely two sexes.

Among the legal misapprehensions promoted by some of these groups is that “sex” in law means “gender identity” – that is, whichever sex you identify with, independent of your biology. In fact, the well-established common-law meaning of sex is that it is male or female, determined by your body type.

Another is that the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” in the Equality Act means schools must allow pupils to use whichever single-sex facilities match their stated identity. But gender reassignment is a separate characteristic from sex, intended to protect trans-identified people from discrimination. It does not change a person’s sex for any legal purpose.

Influenced by all this misrepresentation, many schools present non-belief in “gender identity” as bigotry, despite such non-belief being expressly protected in anti-discrimination law.

According to a recent survey by Policy Exchange, around half don’t inform parents as a matter of course if their child expresses a cross-sex identification at school. More than a quarter have replaced single-sex toilets with mixed-sex ones, and more still have kept male and female door signs but made the facilities de facto mixed-sex by telling trans-identified pupils to use facilities intended for the sex they identify as.

If press leaks are to be believed, the DfE’s draft guidance will tell schools that they must not allow children of one sex to use facilities designated for the other, and that they must inform parents if their child identifies as transgender unless they have good evidence that this would put the child at risk.

But until the DfE publishes it, education professionals are in the hot seat, teaching lessons and enforcing rules that contradict UK law – and scientific fact.

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  1. Alice Skye

    Nobody identified as a cat in the school. The two girls talking started by say the trans person identified as a cow and then changed their story to cat. It is anti-trans bullying and dehumanising language.

    Transgender people exist and their existence is supported by science. There have been multiple independent research studies that demonstrate that there are physical differences in biology between transgender people and cisgender people that are more in line with their gender identity than the sex assigned at birth. The biology argument by anti-trans lobbyists such as Helen Joyce falls flat when they are unable to define sex in such a way that it excludes trans people but includes all cisgender people. Sex is complicated and the only part of it which can’t change is neurological development that occurs in the womb. Everything else can and sometimes naturally change; not that trans people want to go through a bone marrow transplant to change chromosomes just to prove the point to a bigot that they can change.

    Sex in law is currently defined by your birth certificate. The gender recognition act demonstrates this. It is wishful thinking of transphobic people that it is biological sex (without actually defining what that means without excluding people who don’t fit their reductionist definitions). Plus, in the Equality Act 2010, a person doesn’t need to be of a protected characteristic to be protected as that characteristic; for example, an effeminate straight man who is discriminated because his employers thinks he is gay, is still protected on grounds of his sexuality, even though he is straight. We all have a sex, and if a trans girl is discriminated against because she is girl, then she is still protected as a girl despite being transgender and this would remain the case even if people like Helen Joyce get their wish to change the law in an attempt to legitimise discrimination against trans people. The Equality Act also protects transgender children, as demonstrated in recent case law.

    Having your belief protected in law doesn’t mean you have a right to manifest that belief in such a way that creates an offensive environment for someone of a protected characteristic. This was made clear in the Forstater ruling. The bar set for the protection of gender critical belief was ‘is it akin to Nazism’; repeated dehumanising language such as the ‘cat incident’ and calls by Helen Joyce to actively reduce the number of transgender people in society, and by others who have openly called for transgender people to be eliminated, some going so far as to quote Hitler or call for death camps aimed at trans people; it is safe to say that the protection of gender critical beliefs is on borrowed time.

    Finally, the Equality Act 2010 also contains a Public Sector duty of equality to actively promote equality and understanding between those of a protected characteristic and those who are not. Helen’s unsupported rant against transgender children fails in that duty (were Helen a teacher or public sector worker and not a professional anti-trans lobbyist).

  2. This is largely transphobic rhetoric disguised as ‘science’ and follows many of the arguments given as ‘facts’ by the right wing media.

    I think that this is a divisive issue which as a teacher who is LGBT+ I find very difficult to deal with in my classroom. However, I think this particular article is spouting the sort of dangerous rhetoric which endangers LGBT+ people and endangers them in the classroom by legitimising hate speech through purported ‘facts’.

    I find a blanket ‘we accept anyone the way they are’ and a reminder that at no point is anyone under 18 going to go through gender surgery or invasive treatment helps.

    Honestly, I’ve found that this generation of kids are some of the most accepting, understanding people I have met. They find racism, homo and transphobia repulsive and are fully in support of their compatriots, even when they don’t fully understand it.

    I think we as teachers need to remember that it is not our job to police how children present themselves. Only to teach them the best we can how to learn, how to behave (at school) and how to respect everybody.

    • Who said anything about policing the way in which children present themselves?

      Children should be free to not conform to the stereotypes, or statistical averages, of their sex. But that doesn’t mean they are the opposite sex. And it doesn’t mean that the provision of services or protected spaces according to biological sex isn’t important in some circumstances: in a schools context, these are most commonly changing rooms, dormitories, and sporting categories.

      There is no conflict, or need not be, between treating all children in a way that’s humane, and accommodates non-conformity, while also recognising that biological sex is immutable and, in certain scenarios, important to how you provide a service.

      In the past, we confused stereotypes and statistical norms with moral norms and treated children, and adults, who didn’t conform to either as if there was something wrong with them. That was ignorant and cruel. It’s good that we have stopped, largely.

      But we really don’t need to tell a boy who presents in a way that is traditionally associated with girls, or vice versa, that they’re not the sex they were born in. They’re just being a boy or a girl in a way that’s different to most of their peers. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that — or with them.

    • Uh, but that’s a lie (that gender surgery isn’t being done on ppl under 18). 15-16 y/o girls ROUTINELY get elective double mastectomies, and the youngest case I’ve heard of was 13.

      Regardless of your beliefs, do you not think it’s important to at least not lie to your students?

      You can’t possibly BELIEVE that these surgeries aren’t being done are you? Because if so you are clearly not nearly as well informed about this issue as you need to be to be speaking about it ethically.

    • Graeme Hendry

      The author is by stating tested, biological fact repeatedly established by scientists is clearly not engaged in rhetoric or transphobia, whatever that is, but is rightly opposed to feelings based pseudo science being taught to developing children as science based reality because it is absolutely not in any way factual. Claims of hate speech are emotional but beyond inappropriate here and have become the expected response to factual comments, the information provided in the article is established, proven scientific, quantitative biological fact. Or, indisputable!
      It has to stop, the proven facts are facts and hurtcfeelings must be put aside. It is wrong to continue doing this to children!
      I agree teachers are in an unenviable position because they have been thrust into the role of gatekeeper’s protecting young people from a world based on fictional impossibility however surely the best way for teachers to proceed is to practice teaching curriculum and leave the societal absurdities to parents?
      Reading, writing and arithmetic is fundamental to young people’s futures and being a cat is something they will grow out of. Unless of course a well meaning but misguided approach is taken prioritising the fantasy and thereby supporting and surreptitiously and actively making a fantasy into a damaging false reality that will in later life affect the mental wellbeing of the person who has been lost.
      Children are at school to learn facts, not be shaped by pop culture social constructs?

  3. Jay Robbins

    As a parent I do not wish for my child to be indoctrinated with all this gender identification nonsense.
    A child suffering from body dysphoria needs help from the correct professionals. I doubt few teachers are qualified psychologists.
    There are 2 sexes. Children should not have to use mixed sex toilets, changing rooms etc. I want my child protected not open to risk.
    Teachers please teach. My child needs the three rs.

  4. Pedantic biologist

    Can we please stop saying sex is determined at conception, a word in use since the 1300s, centuries before DNA or chromosomes were discovered and simply meaning “to get pregnant “. Fertilisation was first observed in the late 1800s, and for many centuries before it was believed that the man sowed his seed (containing the miniature human) in the fertile field of the womb. In fact, in humans, fertilisation occurs some 5 days BEFORE implantation of the developing embryo into the endometrium of the uterus. Many early embryos fail to implant (that’s why morning-after contraception works), and pregnancy starts at implantation by which time there are hundreds of XX or XY cells in the developing embryo.

    • As a trans teacher who is still unable to come out of the closet professionally owing to the scaremongering, hatred and ridicule from people such as this author, I really hope you are also, for balance, going to publish an article from someone who actually speaks with expertise, authority and compassion about this issue. And before I hear the familiar scream of “they’re trying to stifle legitimate debate'”, it is the lack of transparency of the author’s agenda i have issue with not the debate itself. For example, as a secondary teacher who has seen some of the struggles trans and non-binary go through, I thoroughly agree that more guidance is needed to help staff and kids. I just don’t think I want to be lectured by someone who openly states that people who transition ‘is a huge problem to a sane world’
      Imagine if you said that about gay, bisexual and lesbian people? It’s like we’re being dragged back to the mentality of the 70s and 80s and people who dare to have a diverse gender are now the new target.

      • JL Dutaut

        Hi. This article is a response to an article from Tabitha McIntosh, who has written a couple of times for us on the issue. We hope our coversage of this important topic is balanced, and if you would like to contribute your perspective in your own article, I would be very pleased to work with you on that. I will of course be happy to protect your identity in doing so. Please feel free to drop me an email on to start a conversation. Kindest regards.

  5. Sandy Cameron

    “What precisely are schools supposed to teach children about the contested notion of “gender identity”?”

    That there is a debate about sex and gender which challenges the orthodox view, that’s all. The classroom is not a place to “teach” a “right” position on these matters.