By Caroline Farrow
I received a panicked email from my friend on Friday night, whose children attend the local Catholic primary school. In the school’s newsletter, which had been emailed out to parents that day and uploaded onto the school’s website – as happens every week – a seemingly innocuous paragraph had been added, with the aim of causing as little fuss and controversy as possible.
It read as follows: ‘I am pleased to announce that the Governors have approved the introduction of a gender neutral uniform which will be introduced in September. Rather than having a separate uniform for girls and boys, one uniform list will be produced and girls and boys can choose whether they wear skirts, pinafores, shorts or trousers. There is no change to the uniform which will remain grey, green, yellow and white.’
The net effect of which means that boys, some of whom will be as young as four, can choose to wear skirts or dresses if they want.
My friend, understandably, was incandescent with anger. First, thanks to the way in which this policy had been introduced with absolutely no consultation with parents, which undermines both Catholic Social Teaching on the parent as the primary educator and also the guidelines set out for schools by the government’s Department for Schools, Families and Children (DSFC). Even the Government says that any significant changes to school uniform policy must not only consider the timeframe for introducing or amending a new uniform policy, but must also take into account the views of parents and pupils.
The other, more pressing, issue is that of the message which is being sent to pupils, which is that the distinctions and boundaries between boys and girls no longer matter. In many ways one might argue that it’s quite a progressive policy, saying that boys can wear dresses or skirts if they feel more comfortable. But unlike the issue of girls wearing trousers or shorts, which are unisex items, pinafores and skirts are culturally strongly associated as being items of clothing worn by girls or women.
It’s unlikely, however, that the school has been motivated to introduce the change thanks to a desire to be progressive and challenge gender norms of clothing; far more feasible is that the school has introduced this change in order to comply with the Equalities Act. It means that if a pupil presents as being transgender then no special accommodation will need to be made for them to wear the uniform of the opposite sex.
It is highly possible that this is, in fact, what has happened and their response is the only way for the school to get around the issue, because allowing a boy to wear girls’ clothing accepts the idea that they are in fact a girl and therefore need to wear female uniform in order to assist with transition.
If a Catholic school were to be seen to be validating the ideas behind transgenderism, then it would be compromising their Catholicity, but at the same time, if they don’t accommodate the desires of transgender pupils, then they run the risk of being taken to court and shut down by Ofsted.
Children under the age of 11 ought not to be encouraged to believe in the specious and unscientific notion that one can be born into the wrong body and promoting or validating this ideology is both spiritually, emotionally and even physically harmful. Little is yet known about the long-term effects of giving young children drugs to delay puberty and it is likely to have long-term effects on their physical development. Children are unable to discern whether or not they have been born into the wrong body, even if such a thing were possible, at such a young age, and it seems that a lot of natural anxiety pertaining to puberty is being misdiagnosed with dangerous consequences.
One recent example is a post on the popular Mumsnet website. In it a parent asked for advice regarding their pre-pubescent daughter, who appeared to have an extreme aversion to any discussion on the onset of the menses. Many posters interpreted the aversion as being down to a rejection of her femininity and urged the poster to investigate whether or not she was ‘trans’, to use the popular acronym.
Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned gender ideology and has also spoken about the issues for schools in today’s society, comparing them in some cases to re-education camps. In Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation which was the result of the two-year synod on the family, he wrote about the rift which is being created between families and schools and how the educational pact has been broken.
Catholic parents ought to have a reasonable expectation that Catholic schools will reflect and support Catholic teaching. Encouraging students to wear gender neutral uniform does not do so and the introduction of gender neutral toilets and changing rooms would appear to be the next logical step. Encouraging boys and girls to change together infringes children’s natural dignity and modesty.
It might be hoped that the Catholic Education Service would step in, but they too are mired in controversy and confusion at the moment when it comes to LGBT issues, having recently produced a document to be used in secondary schools to help them target and combat homophobic bullying – a laudable aim, you would think. The problem was that the document appears to have been copied and pasted verbatim from LGBT lobby groups such as Stonewall, who are opposed to and campaign against faith school’s exemption from the Equalities Act, and much of the material included in the bishops’ document contained ideas which were contrary to Catholic teaching and encouraged children to look for and identity a homophobia which was often not present.
One example cited was a piece of playground banter; ‘those trainers are so gay’, which was highlighted as unacceptably homophobic. One child bullying another on not being able to afford the latest cool trainers ought to have been the issue here, not the language used, and an accusation of homophobia could be unfairly permanently recorded on a child’s record as well as then fed into official statistics on homophobic bullying in Catholic schools, which would then give further fuel to groups such as Stonewall who claim that Catholic teaching is ‘harmful’.
The wider difficulty for the CES and for Catholic schools is that they must be seen to adhere to Ofsted’s regulatory requirements, which hold that acceptance of LGBT ideology is now a British value. Over the weekend, a report emerged of an independent Jewish faith school which only teaches children up to the age of eight, which had failed three recent Ofsted inspections, specifically because they were not explicitly teaching children about issues such as sexual orientation. There was no problem with the school’s educational standards or facilities, but by not telling under 8s about LGBT issues, ‘they were not giving them a full understanding of fundamental British values and restricting their moral, cultural and spiritual development.’ Humanists are now calling for this school to be closed.
It seems to me that in order for Catholic schools to be retaining their Catholicity, they need to be failing these sorts of tests in droves and yet adhering to Ofsted’s requirements is the only way for Catholic schools to be able to stay open and keep the support of the wider public, who are only too willing to fall for the rhetoric that all religious schools are hothouses of extremism.
At the same time as the report on the Jewish school was published, Bishop Alan Hopes was calling for Theresa May’s Government to adhere to their promise to lift the 50 per cent admissions cap on new Catholic schools. One has to ask, what is the point of lobbying for more Catholic schools to be built, if they are not in fact Catholic and cannot teach, promote and support teaching on sex and relationships?
Catholic schools are now facing a crunch time, similar to that faced by the adoption agencies a few years ago, and while appeasement may be the temporary solution if they are to survive, it’s certainly not helpful to parents such as my friend, whose decision not to offer her little boy a dress or skirt to wear is now being undermined by her local Catholic school.
Perhaps it’s time to remind the Government that faith is also a protected characteristic under law and push back?
Caroline Farrow is a Catholic journalist and broadcaster