The ESFA has multiple categories for ethnicity – why are they unwilling to add an ‘other’ box for sex, asks Steve Hewitt

Last week, Education and Skills Funding Agency released the first version of the individualised learner record (ILR) data collection specification for next academic year. Without any great expectation, I looked at the definition for the field called “sex”. For several years, I’ve been hoping that we might see a change that would allow us to return any other value than M or F. Unlike any other field in the data, this is the only one that mandates a limited set of values, everything else (ethnicity, disability etc) has “other” or “prefer not to say” options.

I admit, there are personal reasons for this; a friend of mine had a terrible time at university when they wanted to record their non-binary status. But higher education has learned from this, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency return for their sex identifier field now has three options: male, female and other. In fact, no other post-16 education data collection in the UK mandates that learners pick an M or an F.

The ILR specification helpfully tells us why each piece of data is collected and against sex it says: “to describe the structure and nature of the learner population in the sector”.

Without an M or an F in that field we CANNOT claim funding

How can we describe the learner population with an insufficient set of values? In previous discussions they’ve fallen back on talking about “legal sex” of learners, but have completely failed to explain to me why “legal sex” is an important thing to collect (and, in fact, have been contradictory on what “legal sex” even means)! Of all the fields in the ILR, we’re very much relying on learners to self-declare on this one, rather than demanding any sort of proof.

During discussions on social media, after my initial frustrated tweet about this, some people asked why we don’t just leave the field in the ILR blank. So here’s the kicker: without an M or an F in that field we CANNOT claim funding for the learner in question; that’s why it’s so invidious. Even where providers have thought about this and have tried to do something, the binary nature of this field thwarts our efforts to help this group of learners.

Colleges and training providers do astonishing work to welcome learners into a safe, inclusive environment where they’re encouraged to explore and express their identity, whether that’s their ethnicity, their sexuality, their religion or their relationship to what we’ll call their sex.

Imagine being non-binary and walking into college to sign up and the third thing on the enrolment form after name and date of birth denies your existence. How is that going to make you feel about the institution? We wouldn’t do this for any other groups; we’ve gone to great pains to expand and refine ethnicity categories, for example, so why is this such a big deal? How can ESFA be so intransigent in discussions about this?