Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) published guidelines for schools implementing a new relationships and sex curriculum. The guidance includes a widely-reported section on teaching topics relating to gender identity and biological sex.
The teaching of gender identity, and in particular how to explain to children what it means to be transgender, has become highly contentious. As the number of children identifying as transgender has increased, schools have consulted trans charities such as Stonewall and Mermaids about how best to approach the topic. These charities have, however, come under criticism by campaigners, including Transgender Trend and Safe Schools Alliance, for reinforcing a rigid belief in gender roles, and for encouraging children who don’t conform to gender stereotypes to believe they might be trans. The aim of the DfE guidelines is to provide clarity to schools about what they can and can’t teach.
The guidance’s paragraph on gender identity begins by acknowledging that “topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate”. It goes on to make four firm statements about what schools should and should not do.
No harmful stereotypes
- You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear.
Many of the agencies providing resources to schools, among them Stonewall, Mermaids, Allsorts Youth Project, Gires and the Proud Trust, take as given the premise that every individual has an innate sense of gender identity. If that identity matches a person’s biological sex, they are “cis”. If it doesn’t, they are “trans’.
How do we know that a person’s sense of gender identity is at odds with their biological sex? One typical claim is that, if a child likes clothes, toys or hobbies typically associated with the opposite sex, it is a sign that a child could be transgender. For example, Stonewall guidance says that one way to identify that a child is transgender is that they “may come to school wearing clothes not typically associated with their assigned sex.”
The DfE believes that suggesting that, for example, a boy who wears a skirt, or a girl who enjoys playing rugby, might be trans, serves to reinforce stereotypical ideas of what it is to be a boy or a girl. It could also lead to a child wrongly believing they are trans when they are simply expressing their individuality.
Age appropriate resources
- Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based.
Schools need to take more care in choosing appropriate resources for use with children. Some resources produced for use with primary age children have been criticised for confusing very young children by telling them that it is possible to change sex. There are also concerns that some of the materials make claims unsupported by evidence, such as the idea that trans children are aware that their gender identity differs from their biological sex from the age of three.
Non-conformity materials banned
- Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.
This is a strong statement. A large number of the organisations providing training and resources to schools on trans issues use non-conformity to gender stereotypes as evidence that a child is transgender. Mermaids, for example, regularly uses a chart showing gender identity on a 12-point spectrum from a Barbie wearing a pink dress to GI Joe in military fatigues. The Proud Trust uses a resource that talks about “Planet Girl” and “Planet Boy” and asks “What girly things do you like?” If schools are not allowed to use organisations that produce this type of material, many may find themselves out of a job.
No one "born in the wrong body"
- While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.
Teaching children that it is possible to be born in the “wrong” body will no longer be permitted. As the narrative that trans children are born in the wrong body underpins the approach used by many organisations to teaching about trans issues, this will prove challenging.
This part of the guidance also makes it clear that, if a child behaves in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes, teachers should not suggest that they need to change their body – for example, by using breast binders – or leap to the conclusion that they are trans, even if the child thinks they may be. The “affirmative” model promoted by many agencies says that schools should accede to children’s requests to change pronouns or use the facilities of the sex they identify with. The guidance implies that while schools should support these children, they should not be in a hurry to affirm the child’s new identity.