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.
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.