Gender identity issues in schools and government inaction

Gender identity issues in schools and government inaction A person holds a 'Trans' banner in this illustration photo. (OSV News photo/Sergio Perez, Reuters)

With Enoch Burke after having spent over 400 days in jail for refusing to abide by a court order,  related to his initial refusal to comply with a request/instruction to refer to a pupil by their preferred pronouns at Wilson’s Hospital Secondary School, teachers and school administrators remain in the dark as to what is expected of them in relation to this sensitive and difficult topic.

Despite the reality that every secondary school and an increasing number of primary schools are being met with requests by pupils to be referred to by their preferred gender identity which does not align with their biological sex, the government remains silent in terms of any guidance on the matter.

From conversations with teachers, the decision across the board seems to be to that the chosen approach is to acquiesce and comply with such requests. Teachers and school patrons are placed in an invidious position and the chosen response is a logical one from the perspective of self-preservation and the path of least resistance.


It is clear that any refusals are likely to bring unwelcome attention and attacks on both school and teachers in what inevitably becomes a social media pile-on with little sympathy or nuanced understanding from a media that takes little interest in the research on the issue to date.

Behind the decisions is also a desire to #bekind and to be supportive of children and young people who are going through what is undoubtedly a difficult time – whether suffering from genuine gender dysphoria or responding to the innate feeling that they simply do not fit in.

Teachers and schools cannot be blamed for taking such an approach however a year after the issue came to the fore with the Enoch Burke case, there has been no response and seemingly little interest from the government in addressing the challenge faced by parents, children and educators.

This is a serious dereliction of duty. It is a dereliction of duty to both students and teachers. In the UK, there is at least draft guidelines under consultation that provide some direction and understanding on the issue.

Better information is needed about the outcomes for children who undertake degrees of social transition”

The guidelines note that “There is no general duty to allow a child to ‘social transition’”. In Ireland, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was a legal requirement and not just a duty to take a ‘gender affirming’ approach given the general tenor of the response to the Enoch Burke case.

The guidelines further note that:

“The Cass Review is clear that social transition is not a neutral act, and that better information is needed about the outcomes for children who undertake degrees of social transition. This means that schools and colleges should take a cautious approach and that decisions should never be taken in haste or without the involvement of parents.”

The absence of engagement of the government on the issue is the opposite of a cautious approach. it may be wrapped up as caution, given that better information is needed, but no the uninterested and hands-off approach is not cautionary. Doing nothing is not a neutral act.

The guidance requires that no knee-jerk reaction should be taken. It recommends to allow for watchful waiting, make parents aware, consider the impact on the wider school and community, seek clinical information, get the parents views and consider both the long and the short-term impacts.


The Guidelines further advise that:

“Members of staff should not unilaterally adopt any changes, including using a new name or new pronouns, unless or until this has been agreed by the school or college in accordance with the proper procedures and, in the vast majority of cases, parental consent, as set out in this guidance. If and where any change has been agreed, the school or college should communicate this to other pupils and staff where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. This should be done sensitively, without implying contested views around gender identity are fact. Other pupils, parents and teachers may hold protected religious or other beliefs that conflict with the decision that the school or college has made, these are legitimate views that must be respected.”

It is expected that there will be very few occasions in which a school or college will be able to agree to a change of pronouns”

Under no circumstances are ‘preferred pronouns’ to be used in primary school.

The guidance further advises:

“For older children, schools do not need to specify pronouns to be used about each pupil and can decline a request to change a child’s pronouns. Where a school or college considers a child’s request, they should consult the child’s parents and consider all the relevant factors as outlined above. Having considered these factors and examined all the evidence, schools and colleges should only agree to a change of pronouns if they are confident that the benefit to the individual child outweighs the impact on the school community. It is expected that there will be very few occasions in which a school or college will be able to agree to a change of pronouns. On these rare occasions, no teacher or pupil should be compelled to use these preferred pronouns and it should not prevent teachers from referring to children collectively as ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, even in the presence of a child that has been allowed to change their pronouns.”


The absence of official guidance in Ireland means that for any teacher or administrator left to figure things out for themselves will find guidance only from advocacy and lobby groups that provide no such recommendations around a cautionary approach.

Literature shows that a ‘gender affirming’ approach can ‘lock in’ a young person to a path that leads to puberty blockers, hormone and potentially surgical transition, a path they may otherwise have not taken. It is rare that ‘desistors’ (people who say they experience gender incongruence but do not transition) or ‘detransitioners’ (people transition either socially, hormonally or surgically but then seek to reverse to the extent possible) receive any public hearing and there is little public awareness of the impact of being ushered down the wrong path.

Teachers and students deserve proper guidance on this issue. Teachers need to be able to safeguard children under their care and need to be aware that ‘gender affirmation’ in schools is not a neutral act. They may be, with the best of intentions, ushering a vulnerable child down a path where they undertake irreversible surgery, suffer infertility, brittle bones and further psychological distress.

People may disagree with the approach taken by Enoch Burke in response to being requested to use a youth’s preferred pronouns, people may not agree with his underlying reasons for doing this, but for the safety and protection of children, Guidance in the UK is much more aligned with his decision than that of his employers.

Teachers may have to come face to face with their grown-up students who will be asking them why the adults left the room”

That we are a further year down the line and the Government – whether it is the Department of Education, the Department of Children, or the Department of Justice, leaves student vulnerable to making bad decisions, and educators at risk of future guilt of having helped a young person down a regrettable path. This is too much responsibility and potential guilt for individual teachers or schools to take without official guidance.

Even if it is just one child that looks back and asks “Why did nobody say stop?”, which adults, which legislators, will be held accountable? Most legislators will have moved on to either bigger things or will be enjoying their pensions. Teachers may have to come face to face with their grown-up students who will be asking them why the adults left the room.