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Gender identity – how to avoid a media storm

Photo 16734952 © Thinglass |

Policy debates are not new for senior leaders; on the contrary, many heads often enjoy entering the fray. However, with political pressure mounting on multiple fronts, the sector is somewhat beleaguered and many schools have understandably lost their appetite for making headlines.    

The problem is that schools have already been identified as arenas for a number of policy debates in the looming General Election, whether they like it or not. The sector is seeing much more aggressive media approaches, and schools are vulnerable to being dragged into a media storm. In particular, the ways in which individual schools approach gender identity are likely to draw the attention of political campaigns and rights organisations on both sides of the debate.  

There are a number of policy issues attached to the broader gender identity debates, but a fundamental theme across many of them is how we as a society raise and educate young people. Schools need to have a position on fundamental aspects of school life where gender identity issues intersect, such as admissions and facilities; however, hammering out a position isn’t the end of the matter. While the Government published guidance recently, there is still reasonably wide scope for decision-making for schools, which increases opportunities for stakeholders, the media and political campaigns to compare, contrast and criticise. 

There will also be a degree of coordination between the media, politicians and pressure groups. For example, campaigning organisations have already committed significant resource to scouring the EDI policies of UK schools in collaboration with national news desks. Only last week, The Telegraph published an analysis produced by Protect and Teach – “a network of women concerned about gender ideology in schools” – of more than 600 schools’ equality and trans policies across Devon and Cornwall. This can lead to some intimidating enquiries – rather than the usual request for comment, schools are having to respond to detailed analyses of their policies with excoriating comments from campaigners and politicians already attached.  

There are a number of ways in which a school can put mitigation measures in place in anticipation of approaches.  

  • A sensible place to start is to audit your publicly-available policies that refer to gender identity, such as your residential trips policy, or toilets and changing room facilities policy. You may already have a robust stance, in which case the priority will be to ensure your senior leadership can field questions on the matter in a co-ordinated and coherent fashion.  
  • Gender identity issues can present challenges in the workplace too, and it is important that schools recognise that there is a diversity of opinion that may need to be managed. For example, a number of stories regarding gender identity issues in schools relate to people feeling silenced or shouted down rather than the substance of any arguments. It is therefore worth ensuring that there are appropriate channels and fora to raise and manage issues as they arise.  
  • Such are the sensitivities that some schools will want to avoid talking about gender identity altogether. Sometimes this is the right approach, but if your senior leadership is avoiding a discussion just because the subject matter is difficult, then they should consider bringing in external facilitation to help with internal dialogue.  
  • It is similarly important for staff to understand when it is appropriate to respond to an enquiry, and which they can afford to ignore. In particular, schools should be vigilant of vague, blanket emails asking about policies or stances in general – answering non-particularised requests on the record without establishing whether the enquiry is specific to your school may lead to unnecessarily inserting the school into a story. 
  • Many of these debates originate and escalate on social media, so it is worth ensuring your social media policies are updated to cover all social media platforms. Remind colleagues of your social media policy and the importance of not engaging with contentious issues of public policy on public-facing forums.  

Schools will be under the microscope this year, making it all the more important that they avoid unforced errors. By taking stock and preparing for scrutiny now, school leaders can avoid exposing their school community to hostile media attention.  

If you would like a discreet, no obligation call with a member of our specialist education team, email [email protected] or call 020 7692 5675. 

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