Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores secondary academy school in Essex, has no desire to get caught up in a culture war. Instead he has spent the summer planning how to cope with a £320,000 deficit as a result of spiralling energy bills and a national teacher pay rise with no additional cash to pay for it.
“Why do politicians have an opinion on my school toilets? On our uniform policy?” he said. “Sort out the rocketing electricity bills and the cost of living. Don’t get involved in small decisions you don’t add value to.”
Goddard is referring to what many schools up and down the country describe as the apparent politicisation of an increasingly incendiary issue that they are being forced to deal with on a regular basis: gender. Everything from toilets (single sex or unisex) and uniforms (skirts or trousers) to reading material and pupils’ pronouns is the subject of hostile debate in a way not witnessed previously, headteachers say.
In Goddard’s case, as well as changes in pronouns the school has had to navigate issues such as gender-questioning pupils not feeling comfortable using the same single-sex changing room any more. The school is relatively new so it has more flexibility than schools in 50-year-old buildings. “We can just offer a compromise and say: ‘Change in here instead,’” Goddard explained. “Problem solved.” His point is that without interference from outsiders who do not have a stake in the school, these issues have traditionally been quietly resolved between the head, parents and pupils.
Suella Braverman, the government’s attorney general, this summer entered the debate on how schools deal with gender issues. In a speech to the thinktank Policy Exchange earlier this month the Tory MP sparked controversy by stating that schools had no legal obligation to comply with the gender preference of their pupils, that they could refuse to allow transgender children to wear the uniform or use the toilet of their stated gender and that schools which no longer provided single-sex toilets were breaking the law.
It’s not a new narrative under the current government, according to a former employee for the Department for Education (DfE), but it is one that some claim is in danger of taking over more pressing issues for schools. “There was very much the sense, across cabinet and from No 10, that you had to raise the profile of this issue,” said the insider, who worked in the department during Nadhim Zahawi’s time as education secretary. “And the narrative was that this is a growing crisis in schools. But there was no evidence for that.”
The adviser said all the evidence they saw in the department showed that transgender issues were a concern for schools, but apart from some “small isolated situations” where there was a serious problem, schools were “dealing with it themselves like other issues”. “There is no crisis,” the source added.
Goddard’s experience backs this. His school has had unisex toilets for some years and he says they are better than the traditional setup, which can encourage bullying. “Our old loos were closed-off spaces and there was never an adult in them. Pupils told us they felt isolated and didn’t know who would be in there. The reality is our unisex loos feel safe.”
The pupils have come up with their own solution to aid privacy. The boys come in and turn right, and the girls turn left. Girls were worried about boys putting cameraphones under the door, so the doors don’t have gaps that make that possible.
They were installed before it became commonplace for the rightwing media to expose a school for supposedly being too “woke”, Goddard said. In a community which ranges from “extreme left to extreme right”, some parents inevitably had strong views. “But it’s about listening and being prepared to compromise,” he said.
Braverman’s comments unleashed a storm of both approbation and anger on Twitter. The mother of a child who was born a girl but for the past year has chosen to be addressed as “they/them”, tweeted that she was “boiling with rage”. The mother, who spoke to the Observer anonymously to avoid identifying her child, said: “This is about whipping up fear and hatred. The fact that the government is deliberately stoking fear around children and young people is disgusting.”
Her child was upset because two boys were deliberately using the wrong name at school, and she said teachers took it very seriously, explaining to them why that wasn’t acceptable. “If the government tries to make this law, some children would feel they have every right to make individuals like my child feel small and to call them whatever they want.”
But a second mother, who feels fearful about her teenage daughter wanting to become a boy, said she was “overjoyed” to hear Braverman “trying to lay out clear rules”. She added: “If you take away party politics, what she said was very sound.”
Some education lawyers have disputed the legality of Braverman’s comments, arguing that her advice could leave schools open to discrimination claims. Esther Maxwell, legal director at Shakespeare Martineau law firm, who advises schools on issues around transgender, says the law in this area is complex and Braverman hasn’t really clarified the situation for schools.
“There are some question marks over some of the comments she made and the interpretation of the Equality Act,” she said. “It is hard to think what the legitimate aim of a mixed school having a blanket policy of not agreeing to allow trans pupils to be referred to by a different pronoun or name could be,” she added.
As well as becoming the focus of politicians, individual schools are increasingly coming under scrutiny in the media about any policies that appear to involve gender issues.
Several schools are facing anger from parents after announcing that they will have a trousers-only gender-neutral uniform from September. Tiverton High School in Devon has been under attack on social media after the Telegraph revealed that from September the school would “ditch their skirts” and all pupils would wear trousers or shorts. As well as wanting the uniform to be “more gender neutral”, the school’s head, Sammy Crook, told the newspaper that it had become “frustrating” and “time consuming” trying to enforce the school’s skirt-length policy.
The newspaper reported that a number of parents had objected to the change. Frankie Rufolo criticised the move on Twitter. He told the Observer: “Schools must be careful not to pander to a minority and put ideas into kids’ heads,” adding the parents cared more about holes in the school roof than what the uniform looked like.
But another parent said he was “amazed” that a uniform policy had caused so much controversy and blamed people jumping on “a rightwing bandwagon”.
“This decision is nothing to do with being woke,” he said. “The skirts are being banned because they are becoming shorter and shorter, which is breaking the dress code.”
Other schools which have switched to trousers only have also cited girls’ flouting the rules on skirt length as a key reason.
Jacqui Ferris, senior assistant head at Dukeries secondary academy school in Nottinghamshire, said: “It seems archaic to say you have to wear a skirt as a female.” Her school plans to look next year at the possibility of introducing shorts in summer for all pupils. Girls can already choose to wear skirts or trousers.
She said: “The idea of a gender-neutral uniform polarises people, as though it is really controversial, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s about equality.”
She explained that her school had more girls than boys questioning their gender identity, and rather than being drawn into either of the two camps prevalent on Twitter, it tried to treat every child as an individual.
“Sometimes it can be girls rejecting everything they are bombarded with about what a female should look like,” she said. “We try to create an environment where no one is pressured by gender stereotypes. There is certainly no agenda or pressure on children questioning their gender to take a certain path.”
With TV shows like Netflix’s hit coming-of-age romance Heartstopper, in which one of the lead teenagers is trans, drawing big audiences, school is far from the only place young people learn about these issues.
However, Teachers for Evidence Based Education, a group of 10 teachers from primary and secondary schools across the country, claims that some schools are presenting views on gender to children as though they are facts, when there is not yet a scientific consensus.
A member of the group, who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, said teachers were sometimes scared of speaking out in case they were accused of transphobia.
The teacher, from a secondary schoolin London, said: “If a child is finding information online that is clearly influencing them, or engaging with an adult they don’t know online, that is a clear safeguarding issue. But teachers don’t always feel they can raise concerns with the safeguarding lead.”
The group is also concerned that some schools aren’t sticking to the usual rules on involving parents when it comes to identity issues.
“Teachers phone home about any small concern, but at some schools children who question their identity are treated as though they have privacy from their parents,” she said.
Rebecca Newton (not her real name) said her 13-year-old daughter, who had suffered bullying for being gay at school, told her she thought she was a boy two weeks after a presentation at school from a transgender adult.
“This presentation was so inappropriate for 13-year-old girls, who are all freaking out about their bodies and other issues,” Newton said. “It was kept secret from parents. If I’d known about it I would have had a conversation with her about these issues.”
Some months later the school started to send communications home referring to Newton’s son with a boy’s name she had no idea they were using in school. “They didn’t ask us about this. We have to sign a form for a kid to go on a theatre trip or to be given a paracetamol, but this happened with no discussion with me,” she said.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said that the DfE had still not consulted on or published any guidance for schools on these issues, despite talking about doing so, and Braverman’s comments had only “muddied the waters”.
He added: “Schools have been navigating this difficult territory on their own for years, making decisions which serve the best interests of all their pupils.”
A spokesperson for the DfE declined to comment on claims the government is politicising trans issues in schools. But she said: “Schools should be a safe space for all pupils, where open debate and discussion can be held in a tolerant and age-appropriate way.”
She added that “this is both a complex area of the law and a sensitive issue for schools to manage” and said the department is developing guidance to give schools more confidence in making decisions.