Teacher banned from profession after misgendering pupil

A professional misconduct panel of The Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) has prohibited a maths teacher, Mr Joshua Sutcliffe, from teaching indefinitely, with a review period of 2 years, after he misgendered a transgender pupil (Pupil A).

Background to the case

Pupil A was a transgender male pupil when he enrolled at The Cherwell School (the School). He was referred to at School using the preferred pronouns he/him. Mr Sutcliffe failed to use these preferred pronouns, citing his religious beliefs.

At a panel hearing, Mr Sutcliffe contended that biological sex is immutable and cannot be changed, that Pupil A did not have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment, and that there is no legal requirement to use preferred pronouns. The panel stated that it was not their function to determine these three matters. Accordingly, this matter did not entail consideration of whether Mr Sutcliffe breached the Equality Act 2010, or whether Mr Sutcliffe harassed or discriminated against Pupil A.

Mr Sutcliffe was an evangelical Christian and the panel was mindful of his strong and sincere religious beliefs rooted in his deep faith which led him to have a personal conviction against using preferred pronouns. The panel did not dispute that Mr Sutcliffe has a right to hold this belief. However, what was unacceptable was the manner in which Mr Sutcliffe chose to manifest this belief. He used female pronouns towards Pupil A and he did so publicly and in writing. Specifically, the panel determined that Mr Sutcliffe failed to have regard to Pupil A’s dignity, to treat him with respect, or to safeguard Pupil A’s well-being.

The evidence

Mr Sutcliffe admitted in evidence that he had made a comment in class to the effect that he was against gay marriage as it was wrong. The panel considered that he had failed to consider the potential impact of this statement on pupils, particularly those who may be from the LGBTQ+ community. There was an implication that Pupil A and another pupil who identified as being from the LGBTQ+ community needed to be ‘cured’. The panel found that Mr Sutcliffe had failed to deal with this matter professionally and in a balanced way. The panel therefore concluded, in relation to this matter, that Mr Sutcliffe failed to treat pupils with dignity and respect and to safeguard pupils’ well-being.

A similar finding was made in relation to a video that Mr Sutcliffe showed to pupils at another school, entitled ‘Make Men Masculine Again’. The panel found that Mr Sutcliffe failed to provide context or debate and this risked the video being perceived by the pupils as the sole position on the definition of masculinity. The panel determined that Mr Sutcliffe failed to take into account the potential negative impact on pupils who did not agree with or conform to the views of masculinity portrayed in the video. The panel found that this was a failure to treat pupils with dignity and respect and a failure to safeguard pupils well-being.

Having found a number of allegations against Mr Sutcliffe to be proven (other allegations were not proven) the panel went on to consider whether this amounted to unacceptable professional conduct and/or conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute. It concluded that the conduct of Mr Sutcliffe fell significantly short of the standard of behaviour expected of a teacher and he was guilty of unacceptable professional conduct and conduct that may bring the teaching profession into disrepute.

Mr Sutcliffe may apply for the prohibition order to be set aside after 2 years, at the earliest. Without a successful application, the ban will continue.

What lessons can schools learn from this case?

The focus of the panel was on Mr Sutcliffe’s failure to treat pupils with dignity and respect and to safeguard their wellbeing. It is a reminder to staff not to judge pupils or seek to impose their own beliefs, including religious convictions. It is likely that schools will need to provide staff with much more training, in particular around gender issues.

Although the panel did not consider whether the Equality Act 2010 had been breached, any training provided to staff should cover the obligations of schools under the Equality Act, including the protected characteristics most likely to be relevant in relation to children and gender issues i.e. sex, gender reassignment disability and sexual orientation.

The provisions relating to gender reassignment protect people who propose to undergo, undergo or have undergone a process to reassign their sex. To be protected, a person may be at any stage of the transition process and they may change their mind, later on. They may never undergo a medical process. There could be a question over whether a child has meaningfully decided to make such a decision and therefore the protection afforded by the Equality Act may not apply in all cases. However, the decision of the TRA shows that irrespective of this, children have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Imminent government guidance

The government’s long-awaited guidance to support schools in relation to transgender pupils is expected to be published this summer. This is desperately needed as there is currently a lack of clarity around a range of issues and schools are often caught in a cross-fire between opposing views and beliefs.

It is expected that the guidance will cover the very sensitive issue of whether schools should inform parents when a child questions their gender identity. It is also expected to say that schools should take a “case by case” approach to children experiencing “gender distress” – a process already adopted by many schools. We also understand that the guidance will state that allowing a child to change their name or pronouns can have a significant psychological impact. It is hoped that the implications of this are fully explained and that the guidance will provide the clarity that is currently lacking.

Contact Moore Barlow

If you or your school require support in this areas, please contact a member of the Moore Barlow Schools team.