Rehabilitating sexist stereotypes in the classroom
17th March 2022
Teaching gender identity leaves children confused about who they are and alienated from their parents, writes Joanna Williams.
Schools, as social institutions, reflect and shape our assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman. But changes in elite thinking about the meaning of sex have detatched gendered socialisation from both biology and broader social norms. This has led to demands for gender neutrality (as opposed to sexual equality) while also creating the troubling prospect that outdated sexist stereotypes are rehabilitated in the guise of transgender inclusivity. Meanwhile, parents are left increasingly alienated from the process of raising their own children.
Schooling girls and boys
For two centuries, sharp distinctions in the schooling of boys and girls reflected the ‘broad acceptance of natural, inherent, differences between the sexes’ and the subsequent unequal position of men and women in society. (1) In the classroom, this meant differential access to the curriculum and distinct behavioural expectations, with girls taught cookery and domestic economy, for example, and boys woodwork and metal work. As Jane Martin notes in Gender and Education in England since 1770, throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the government provided financial incentives for schools to increase the teaching of domestic science to girls. This suggests girls needed prompting to undertake the training in domestic service which prepared them for later employment and, in a circular argument, then justified future gendered educational inequalities.
Unequal educational opportunities, driven by a notion of inherent sex-based differences, continued to shape schooling well into the second half of the twentieth century. The Crowther Report, published by the Ministy of Education in 1959, contains a lengthy section on ‘Women’s Education for Marriage and Employment’. Schools were expected to prepare ‘less able’ girls for domestic roles because, ‘their needs are much more sharply differentiated from those of boys of the same age than is true of the academically abler groups’. Feminist pushback to such ideas was already beginning to emerge and from the late 1960s onwards, teachers – many influenced by the growing women’s liberation movement – sought to challenge sex-based stereotypes and sexist assumptions about girls’ ambitions, expectations and life chances.
Research on gender and education burgeoned from the mid-1970s onwards, leading to a growing push for sexual equality at a time when more radical thinking about schools was gaining ground and activist-educators were becoming increasingly influential. Co-educational schools and mixed-ability teaching were increasingly the norm. Issues of language and representation in the classroom came to the fore with teachers influenced by a growing feminist movement actively seeking ways to promote gender equality among their pupils. However, firmly entrenched attitudes and practices were often slow to shift.
Perhaps more than anything else, it was the introduction of the National Curriculum and GCSE exams in 1988 that enabled more girls to access the full range of school subjects and, importantly, grades. Girls began not only to equal but to surpass the performance of boys. A discourse of ‘successful girls’ versus ‘failing boys’ began to become pervasive. By 1996, concern was being expressed about the comparative underperformance of white working class boys in particular. Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, described their apparent failure as, ‘one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system’. (1) Proposed solutions to this problem focused on the need for male role models and more masculine approaches to teaching and assessment. This suggests that, at the turn of the millennium, an assumption in innate differences between male and female pupils was still very much to the fore.
There are still many active campaigns to combat sexism in schools. (See, for example, the National Education Union’s 2021 campaign Challenging Sexism in Schools.) However, more recent years have seen a shift in thinking about the nature of sex and gender. There has been a move away from an assumption that sex differences are real and biological, but males and females are equal and therefore boys and girls should have the same educational opportunities, to a view that gender is an identity distinct from biology and should not, therefore, be assumed. In other words, it cannot be taken for granted that male pupils are necessarily boys or that female pupils are necessarily girls.
Campaigns to challenge sexism and initiatives to promote the idea that gender is an identity come together in the promotion of gender neutrality. Gender neutral schools are becoming increasingly fashionable. In Scotland, the Gender Friendly Nurseries initiative trains staff to use gender-neutral language rather than referring to boys or girls. Course material states: ‘the importance of language and ways of communicating in teaching children about gender cannot be underestimated’ and that ‘the pressure children and young people experience to conform to binary gender definitions affects all children.’ Staff working with the very youngest children are trained to use language in such a way as to promote the notion that sex is not a binary biological reality. The consequences of not adopting this approach are made starkly clear: ‘attitudes and language are part of a sliding scale of violence that can result in physical violence and murder.’
A growing number of schools have introduced gender neutral school uniforms. The Deputy Head of one such secondary school told the BBC, ‘Hopefully now we can work with more pupils to make them feel like they’re not breaking the rules for being themselves’. Other schools have gone further and introduced gender neutral toilets and changing facilities. One school heralds the change by noting that existing facilities, ‘fail on so many counts to meet the needs of all of our students including our transgender and non-binary students’ and that ‘we all have gender-neutral toilets at home and consequently we are all very familiar with them.’ Elsewhere, the roles of Head Boy and Head Girl have been replaced with the gender neutral Head of School or Head’s Ambassadors. In PE classes, many schools allow all pupils to compete alongside one another in what would have once been classified as separate male or female sports.
The shift from challenging stereotypes and inequalities to fundamentally challenging the whole concept of sex is often presented as being part of a seamless quest for equality and inclusivity. But there are crucial differences between the two positions. Challenging stereotypes created the possibility for equal educational opportunities for boys and girls. It did not deny that boys and girls existed as two distinct groups. Denying this biological reality sets schools at odds with parents and the rest of society, as well as the not insignificant matter of scientific fact. In fact, it is because gender neutrality does not reflect the lived reality of most children’s lives that it needs to be enshrined in school practice far more explicitly than efforts to tackle sexism were in the 1970s and 1980s.
Gender neutrality raises immediate concerns. Perhaps most pressing of all is the issue of safeguarding. Schools have a legal duty of care towards their pupils. Creating gender neutral toilets, changing rooms and dormitories erodes the privacy of girls and may, at worst, leave them at increased risk of sexual assault. In terms of sports and leadership positions, it risks turning the clock back on decades of progress towards sexual equality. Beyond this, gender neutrality absolves adults of responsibility to provide children with gendered models for how to live. In pulling the rug on society’s most fundamental premise, that to be a boy is to grow up to be a man, and to be a girl is to grow up to be a woman, children are left without any direction for their future sense of self. Gender neutrality becomes, in effect, a form of anti-socialisation. To be clear, the knowledge that boys and girls grow up to be men or women should not limit a child’s expectations. But taking away these basic certainties is the opposite of liberating; it leaves children on the precipice of a terrifying void.
Transgender ideology in schools
In some areas, the drive to get children to question their own gender is made more explicit. Four year-olds starting school in Brighton are asked to choose whether they are a boy, a girl or something else. Many local education authorities have produced ‘Trans Inclusion Toolkits’ for schools to follow. Teachers are instructed that: ‘It is vital that work on sexism, gender expression, gender stereotyping and particularly masculinity and femininity is done across the school to ensure all children and young people feel respected in their gender expression.’ Again we see the passing off of a continuum between challenging sexism and the notion of respecting ‘gender expression’.
In relation to toilets, the ‘toolkit’ advises:
for trans children accessing the changing room which corresponds to their gender identity can be extremely important. We would therefore encourage schools to enable this wherever possible. Any pupil or student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided with a reasonable alternative changing area such as the use of a private area or with a separate time to change.
It is the child who desires privacy who is to be singled out for special treatment, not the transgender child. In this way, the message goes out to all children that sex-based rights must give way to the need to respect another person’s gender identity.
Guest speakers, assemblies and reading material provide more explicit means to introduce the idea that gender is on a spectrum. One group, Pop’n’Olly, distributes books and resources to thousands of schools featuring brightly coloured pictures and animations that promote the key ideas such as: sex is randomly assigned at birth; gender is a feeling we discover for ourselves; sex and gender do not always align and, crucially, that it is vitally important to respect someone’s gender identity. Children are not taught that such ideas are highly contested and may fundamentally contradict the content of their biology lessons. Instead, children are taught to recite key tenets of transgender ideology uncritically.
Teaching about human sex differences and reproduction is clearly an integral component of the science curriculum. It does not necessarily require a broader moral or social context. However, in practice science classes have long expanded to encompass a broader range of issues around sex. As far back as 1968, the government’s Handbook of Health Education, advised teachers to discuss contraception and acknowledge sex as ‘an emotional experience’. Since then, sex education has also become absorbed within now-mandatory health and relationships classes.
From September 2020 schools have been required to teach relationships and sex education to children of all ages, with no ‘artificial’ separation between the two. Guidance states that all pupils should receive teaching on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) relationships and that such discussions must be fully integrated into lessons rather than taught as a stand alone unit. Primary schools are strongly encouraged to include families with same sex parents when teaching about different types of families.
In many ways, the new Relationships and Sex Education guidance to schools continues previously established trends. A focus on avoiding harm has dominated sex education since its inception. However, the definition of harm has changed over the decades. Where teachers were once concerned to protect children from the harms of teenage pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections, they are now focused on the emotional harm of relationships and threats to individual identity. The 2020 curriculum guidance focuses on ‘how stereotypes, in particular stereotypes based on sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, can cause damage’. Children are also to be taught ‘the legal rights and responsibilities regarding equality (particularly with reference to the protected characteristics as defined in the Equality Act 2010) and that everyone is unique and equal’.
Campaigning organisations such as Stonewall have insisted that the ‘T’ of gender idenitity must sit alongside the ‘LGB’ of sexuality. In schools, this means that lessons on relationships encompass both sexuality and gender identity and the need to positively affirm LGB relationships becomes an imperative to positively affirm transgender identities. Over the course of several decades, schools have moved from teaching about sex to sexuality, and from challenging sexism to promoting positive regard for the unscientific notion that a person can change sex.
Reflecting or changing social norms?
It is argued that changes in teaching about sex, gender and relationships merely bring schools up to date with changed social attitudes, much in the same way as promoting sexual equality did in the 1980s. Certainly it is the case that, although still tiny, there have been dramatic increases in the number of children reported to be seeking professional help for gender dysphoria. In 2020-21, 2,383 children were referred to the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service, compared to 138 in 2010-11. These numbers may be small but they represent a 17-fold increase in 10 years.
However, rather than simply reflecting social shifts, schools may be at the forefront of changing attitudes. The very fact of asking 4 year-olds to choose their gender sows the idea that sex can be disregarded and gender picked seemingly at random. What’s more, the basis on which such young children make such decisions is likely to be based on little more than their nascent grasp of gender stereotypes. The girl who likes fighting, football and trucks may conclude she is actually a boy, while the boy who likes pink, princesses and dolls may assume he is really a girl trapped in a boy’s body. There is a danger that schools, in both teaching and affirming bogus concepts of gender identity, confirm sexist stereotypes as ‘true’.
In Inventing Transgender Children and Young People, Michele Moore and Heather Brunskell-Evans argue that there is little evidence to support claims that brains are sexed, and no evidence to suggest that some fetuses develop with mismatched brains and bodies. In fact, they note, ‘The idea that transgenderism is an internal, pre-social phenomenon that has existed throughout history is not an evidenced fact, but a proposition’. (2) And far from being a long-standing proposition, it was only around five years ago that the existence of the transgender child became widely accepted.
Moore and Brunskell-Evans are particularly critical of current advice from transgender advocacy groups, often replicated uncritically in school policies, that the ‘best practice’ approach to children questioning their gender identity is positive affirmation. Teachers, parents and health professionals are expected to confirm that a child’s newly invented idea about their identity is more meaningful than the physical presence of the child’s body. Those who do not uncritically affirm their child’s new gender identity report feeling ‘marginalised and ultimately excluded from having any input into intervention planning and care’ for their own child. (2)
Positive affirmation can have dire consequences for children. For a child who is going through ‘a phase’, or is simply a little confused, affirming a new identity ‘may freeze the development of their thoughts and… consolidate confusion’ making it more difficult for children to change their minds about their gender identity and begin to accept the body they were born into. This is exacerbated by the fact that positive affirmation often leads immediately to ‘social transition’, whereby children might take on a new name, adopt the pronouns and clothing normally associated with the opposite sex, and gain access to spaces set aside for members of the opposite sex.
In Scotland, children are able to change their name and pronouns while at school without their parents’ consent. Meanwhile, a school in England allowed sixth form students to send a newsletter to all pupils, some as young as 11, offering instruction on breast binding so that girls can look ‘more masculine’. Positive affirmation from teachers, social workers and health professionals risks leaving children cut adrift from the values of their parents and the protections of their family and community.
Introducing ideas about sexuality and gender identity into teaching contexts pushes schools into far more political and morally contested terrain. Putting schools at odds with parents, suggests an agenda of social change rather than just confirmation of existing social norms. Parents with strongly-held religious convictions have expressed particular concern about school over-reach. Muslim parents in Brimingham took to the streets to protest against the No Outsiders programme which was being used in a number of the city’s primary schools.
Created and piloted by assistant head teacher Andrew Moffat, who was made an MBE for services to equality and diversity in education in 2017, No Outsiders aims to teach young children about the existence of same sex relationships and the concept of gender identity. According to the BBC, ‘books used in the programme include stories about a dog that doesn’t feel like it fits in, two male penguins that raise a chick together and a boy who likes to dress up like a mermaid.’ Parental protests suggest schools are out of kilter with values in at least some homes. Mr Ahmed, one of the leaders of the protests, said, ‘The issue we have with No Outsiders is that it is changing our children’s moral position on family values on sexuality and we are a traditional community.’
Schools are integral to, not distinct from, society. As such, they reflect dominant cultural values and attitudes about a whole range of issues including, most significantly, what it means to be a man or a woman today. Recent decades have seen schools shift from a focus on challenging sexual inequality to promoting transgender ideology. This essay has set out the many ways in which this occurs in practice.
Unlike challenging sexism, promoting transgender ideology throws up a number of distinct problems. Perhaps most fundamentally for schools as institutions first and foremost concerned with education, the notion that sex is randomly assigned at birth, and people have an innate sense of gender identity, runs counter to received scientific knowledge. It is, at best, confusing to teach children one thing in the context of a biology lesson and then an entirely contradictory concept in a Personal, Social and Health Education class. Getting children to rehearse ideological fallacies robs them of moral and intellectual agency.
The promotion of gender neutrality can over turn progress towards sexual equality when it requires girls to sacrifice personal safety, privacy or a place of a sports’ team. The crude message that if you are good at maths and like football then you must be a boy breathes life back into outdated stereotypes. Teaching sexuality and gender identity blurs the boundaries between knowledge, opinions and values. For some children, values taught at school are at odds with the values of their home environment. But this is allowed to happen because it has come to be widely accepted that teachers should do far more than simply teach subjects. Just as the boundaries between knowledge and values have become blurred, so too have the boundaries between the role of teachers and parents.
Campaigners and government ministers alike look to teachers to impart values and inculcate woke opinions because of a dominant perception that parents are simply not up to the task of raising their own children in the ‘correct’ ways, on the one hand and, although stated less explicitly, a fear that if left to the public, expert-approved values may not withstand democratic scrutiny on the other. The upshot is socialisation in reverse. Children, particularly transgender children, are now expected to educate their parents and other adults about the correct way to live.
We need to reassert parents rights and reinforce the division of responsibilities between home and school. We need to ask why the state, through schools and teachers, has a greater right to inculcate values in children than their parents. We also need to consider the consequences for the project of education when the curriculum itself comes to be politicised.
(1) Martin, J. (2022) Gender and Education in England Since 1770. Palgrave Macmillan.
(2) Moore, M. & Brunskell-Evans, H. (2020) Inventing Transgender Children and Young People. Cambridge Scholars Publishing