Colleges and FE providers are failing to provide adequate support for transgender staff due to a culture of complacency, the president of the Institute for Learning has claimed.
Beatrix Groves, herself a transgender woman, told TES that while virtually all institutions have equality and diversity policies, they are often little more than "fig leaves to cover themselves in case of legal action".
Ms Groves, who also works as an adult education tutor in the North East, said she had encountered several providers who "did the minimum required to cover their backs" and were keen to sweep the issue under the carpet.
The claims come days after new guidance on equality in FE colleges - drawn up jointly by the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the six unions representing teaching and support staff in the sector - was launched. The document outlines best practice for colleges with transgender employees, focusing on how to support members of staff who are in the process of having sex change surgery, how to communicate the change to other staff and how to alter personnel records appropriately.
But while AoC employment policy manager Emma Mason insisted that colleges are doing "fantastic work" on the issue, Ms Groves said that the reluctance among many FE providers to go beyond the statutory minimum requirements led members of the transgender community "to feel that being 'out' and being (their) natural self was a great risk".
"Being part of a complacent culture in FE and adult and community learning with regard to difference has a stunting effect on the sense of personal growth," she said.
Ms Groves, who was born male, said that "coming out" as a woman in 2008 was "one of the most traumatic things an individual can do". "It involved not just wearing different clothes, but the total deconstruction and reconstruction of a life and all that goes with it. Work is one of the key factors.
"I had taught for 28 years as a man. How my students and colleagues would react to me as a woman, and how my workplaces would support me through this, was a very important aspect of my building of this 'new life'. I needed all the help I could get.
"One would assume that things have improved since then ... Just about every organisation has an equality and diversity policy. So 'coming out' should have been relatively easy. I wish I could say that was the case."
Ms Groves added that, while teachers are required to embrace students with different backgrounds and needs, employers are too often reluctant to acknowledge diversity within the staffroom.
"When a student says, 'I don't want a tranny for a tutor', do employers act to support the individual, as their policy would demand, or do they fudge the issue because the customer is always right? It's a brave individual who is willing to take up all these issues with their employer."
Ms Groves' analysis was not shared by the AoC, which cited the example of the Grimsby Institute and University Centre, which has won several awards for its work on transgender issues. "Colleges are moving beyond compliance with the law to bring their policies to life and instil equality and diversity throughout their organisation," Ms Mason said. "A focus for staff and students will be to challenge and remove barriers in order to allow people within the college community to be fully themselves and to express difference."
The Association of School and College Leaders has not been made aware of any problems with transgender employees, according to general secretary Brian Lightman. "One thing we have always been clear about is making sure schools and colleges have appropriate policies, particularly taking into account employment law and the Equality Act," he said.
ALL IS NOT EQUAL
How FE providers were rated for equality and diversity by Ofsted in 2010-11:
55% - Outstanding
44% - Good
48% - Satisfactory
3% - Inadequate.