It’s not so long ago that if a young girl announced at school that she was really a cat her teacher would smile indulgently, a few pupils might tell her she was being silly and that would be the end of it. Not any longer. When precisely that happened in a school in East Sussex recently it became a national story because of the way the teacher reacted. She announced that it was “really despicable” for another girl to hold the “very sad” belief that gender is binary and she should “go to a different school” for rejecting the idea that a classmate could identify as a cat. She also said she would report the pupil to a senior colleague because she needed a “proper educational conversation about equality, diversity and inclusion”.
This rather bizarre affair has served to highlight what has become a deeply divisive debate about our right to identify ourselves in whatever way we see fit. Specifically, the right of a child to do so. Perhaps not as a cat – but as a human of a different gender from their biological sex.
Before we get into the politics of it all it might be worth reprinting part of the exchange that took place in that now infamous ‘life education’ class between 13 year-old girls. It was recorded on a mobile and began with the teacher telling off one of the girls for having ridiculed the idea that someone could identify as an animal. The (unnamed) teacher said: “How dare you? You just really upset someone.”
The girl responded: 'I just said if they want to identify as a cow or something, then they are genuinely unwell… How can you identify as a cat when you are a girl?'
Teacher: “You were questioning their identity. Where did you get this idea from that there are only two genders?”
Pupil: “I just said my opinion. If I can respect their opinion, can't they respect mine?”
Teacher: “It is 'not an opinion' and 'gender’ is not linked to the parts that you were born with; gender is about how you identify.. .there are lots of genders including transgender and agender… Cisgender is not necessarily the way to be.”
Then another girl joined in: “If you have a vagina you're a girl and if you have a penis you're a boy — that's it.”
The teacher told her that her views were “despicable”. She called both girls homophobic and added: “If you don't like it you need to go to a different school”. Then she said she was going to report them both.
When that exchange appeared on social media the reaction was a mixture of anger and bewilderment. Many were baffled, some were outraged. Even Katharine Birbalsingh, famously regarded as Britain’s strictest head teacher has weighed into the debate. She told an education conference that children identifying as cats can wear tails and ears in classrooms - but are banned from wearing trainers under school uniform rules and parents have “no idea just how bad things are in schools”. She warned that adult authority “is long gone” as more pupils are identifying as animals in school: "There are kids right now, in some schools, with tails and ears pinned to their heads and bottoms. This isn’t fancy dress, they identify as cats… Kids aren’t allowed to wear trainers to school but they are allowed to wear ears and tails because that’s their chosen identity. That’s how they feel they belong. Adult authority is long gone.”
The politicians have joined in. The former home secretary Priti Patel, who was made a dame in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours, said: “This left-wing indoctrination of our young people is disturbing and must be stamped out of our schools. The government must put the rights of parents first.”
The school itself ( Rye College in East Sussex) said it encouraged pupils to “ask questions and engage in discussion”. The spokesperson also said its teachers “endeavour to ensure that pupils’ views are listened to and we encourage them to ask questions and engage in discussion and aim to answer questions sensitively and honestly”. It would review its “processes” and work “with the relevant individuals to ensure such events do not take place in the future”.
The incident could hardly have been more timely. New guidance is about to be introduced by the government which, it’s believed, will force schools to tell parents whether students are questioning their gender even if the pupils themselves object. One government source has been quoted as saying “parents have got to be kept in the know about their child”.
Patel herself said teachers have already been sent “endless statutory guidance on these issues” but she conceded that Conservative ministers should have made a stronger case for strengthening the rights of parents on sensitive issues, including sex education, “rather than conceding to activist lobby groups.”
But the important word there is “guidance”. Schools can still use their own judgement on whether, for instance, to introduce gender-neutral toilets or changing rooms and allow a biological boy to play in a female hockey team or wear the uniform of the opposite sex.
In April, The Times reported that Rishi Sunak had ordered the Department for Education to speed up the new guidance, which is being developed with the office of Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister.
The document, it says, is expected to make clear that children who identify as a different gender from their biological sex cannot share toilets, changing or shower facilities with the opposite sex.
Crucially, it is also expected to rule that teachers will have to tell parents if a child is questioning their gender — even if the pupil objects. But if parents indicate that they agree with their child changing gender, the head teacher will have to be consulted. Teachers and other pupils will not be forced to respect the “new” pronouns. And head teachers will need to consider the impact on other children. The rules are also expected to say that schools will be required to protect children if there is a “significant safeguarding issue”.
I spoke recently to the mother of a 16 year-old boy who discovered that he had changed his pronouns and his name only when a mother of another child at the same school phoned and asked to speak to her “daughter”. What followed was an excruciatingly embarrassing conversation between two mothers who had never met and an acutely difficult dilemma for one of them. Clearly her “son” – a highly intelligent and sensitive boy - had not wanted his mother to know what he had done and that, in itself, was extremely hurtful. But how should she behave now? Should she pretend the conversation with the other mother had never happened and simply wait for her son to tell her when he thought the time was right? And what, she asked me, if the time was never “right”?
So where do you stand on this contentious issue? And what role should the school play if the child does not wish their parents to know that they have chosen a different gender?
Do let us know what you think.