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Trans guidance: A recipe for unintended consequences

Hard as it may be to believe, gender identity was not always a culture war issue that no sane person would willingly offer an opinion on for fear of being deliberately misunderstood. 

Just over 10 years ago, when I was a primary school governor, we had a pupil who was born a boy but identified as a girl. At the time this was very unusual, to the point where one media headline covered the case as one of the youngest people ever diagnosed with gender dysphoria in the UK.  

For schools, dealing with these kinds of occurrences in their communities and children’s reactions to them is part of life. When I was at primary school, one of my classmates’ parents passed away. This was explained to us as a class of 8-year-olds, I assume to pre-empt the fact we would inevitably find out and possibly have questions which should not be directed to our classmate.

Even primary school children sometimes have to deal with a range of ‘adult themes’ – from death to birth to same-sex parents and, yes, trans children. The desire to protect them from these often comes from a good place, but it is easier to bury your head in the sand as a commentator than as a teacher.  

It would be impossible to work out how to respond to all the varieties and vagaries of life in teacher training. Teachers’ human responses to these events will be influenced by a mix of professional experience, leadership, previous training, guidance from government and other experts. 

As a policy professional (or a politician) it’s easy to think government guidance is a vital driver in this – but it’s not.

Polling suggests the daily act of collective worship doesn’t always happen even though it’s compulsory. Adding three pages to the guidance on Keeping children safe in education (current length: 178 pages) probably will shift practice a bit, but not instantly, not universally, and quite possibly not in the way you think.

You start with good intentions, and end up treating a teacher really badly when there’s an accident with a glue gun. 

It is easier to bury your head in the sand as a commentator than as a teacher

A consultation on RSHE guidance has just launched, and the end product may well be more nuanced than this week’s Times headline, ‘Schools must not teach children about gender identity’. (Taken literally, this could result in schools opting to use gender-neutral pronouns for all – probably not the government’s intent.)

Of course, these headlines are not aimed at schools. Who they are aimed at is a rabbit hole best avoided. But they are seen by parents and others, and they give a very unhelpful sense of what schools realistically can do. Schools ultimately end up having to deal with not only the facts on the ground, but parents’ expectations about what schools should do about the facts on the ground.  

I assume the guidance will have work-arounds and grey areas. The Times seems to think you’ll only be able to teach biological facts, but surely teachers can explain a child has transitioned when it happens. I assume teachers will still be able to address transphobic bullying. And I strongly suspect none of this can possibly trump wider employment law implications for trans staff.

Part of me wants to say teachers shouldn’t have to operate in grey areas. It shouldn’t be beyond us as a society to come up with clear guidance to set our broad strokes of how to approach these issues. Nor should we struggle to trust highly trained professionals in schools to deal with the nuances that inevitably come up in an education system with 9 million children. We mostly seem to manage this on political neutrality, for example. 

But in truth, I think some element of grey is inevitable. Gender identity is a medical issue, schools are downstream of wider culture, and unlike smartphones it’s impossible to try and make this something that gets left at the school gates.  

Regardless of a wider political debate (and the guidance), schools will still have trans children, trans parents and trans staff. No government can magic away the facts on the ground – or the discussions in the playground.

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