Gove is becoming a liability for the Tories

The Education Secretary's running battles with teachers and "the blob" do not endear him to voters.

For the third day running, the fallout from Michael Gove's decision to remove Labour peer and former Blair adviser Sally Morgan as the chair of Ofsted is leading the headlines. The Lib Dems are warning that they will veto any attempt by him to appoint Tory donor Theodore Agnew as her successor, Labour has written to Jeremy Heywood demanding an investigation, and former Ofsted chief inspector David Bell has warned Gove not to "believe his own hype" in a written rebuke

Few voters will trouble themselves with the details (how many know or care who leads Ofsted?) but the repeated criticisms of Gove from all sides will encourage the suspicion that the education system is being changed in undesirable ways - and that should trouble the Tories. While the Education Secretary is lauded by the commentariat and by Conservative activists, his approval rating among parents is less impressive. A YouGov poll last year found that 25 per cent of voters would be less likely to vote Tory if he became leader with just four per cent more likely.

And voters, contrary to Westminster perception, aren't keen on his policies either. Another YouGov poll, for the Times, showed that just 27 per cent support free schools with 47 per cent opposed. In addition, 66 cent share Labour and the Lib Dems' belief that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory. For these reasons, among others, Labour has consistently led the Tories (see p. 8) on education since the end of 2010, with a five point advantage at present. 

Worse, just 12 per cent of teachers (at far from insignificant voting group) would vote Conservative, compared to 43 per cent for Labour and 6 per cent for the Lib Dems. Evidence of why was supplied elsewhere in the poll, which found that 79  per cent believe that the government's impact on the education system has been negative, and that 82 per cent of teachers and 87 per cent of school leaders are opposed to the coalition's expansion of academies and free schools. In addition, 74 per cent said that their morale had declined since the election and 70 per cent of head teachers did not feel trusted by ministers to get on with their jobs. Finally, 91 per cent of teachers opposed publicly-funded schools being run for profit (a policy Gove has said he would consider introducing under a Conservative majority government) and 93 per cent believed academies and free schools should only employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status.

Those who believe that the Tories derive a political dividend from Gove's clashes with "the blob" (the name he and his ideological allies use for the educational establishment after the 1958 horror film) forget that voters are far more likely to trust teachers than they are politicians. A poll by Ipsos MORI last year found that 86 per cent of voters trust teachers compared to just 18 per cent for politicians (but 41 per cent for trade union officials). 

As David Bell writes in his piece today, "Don’t believe your own hype. Whitehall has a habit of isolating ministers. The day-to-day grind of policy battles, firefighting and political ding-dong can start to cut you off from outside ideas and thinking. The row over Ofsted's shows the importance of retaining, and being seen to retain, independent voices near the top – not simply 'yes men'. The danger is that while The Blob is a useful political tool in the short-term, it simply might not be as deep-rooted as the education secretary believes."

Gove has an important message to deliver today on breaking down "the Berlin Wall" between state and private schools (the subject of this week's NS cover story by David and George Kynaston). But his permanent kulturkampf with teachers means that, on this issue and much else, he is danger of no drowning his own words out. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.