The number of primary school children referred to the NHS with transgender feelings has quadrupled in five years. But do teachers know how to help them?
Jessie is a typical seven-year-old pupil. She likes colourful dresses and tops off her uniform with a baby-pink hairband. For World Book Day she came to school as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and every art activity involves pink glitter.
But Jessie was born a boy, and less than a year ago attended school as Blake. It’s only in recent months that she has made the transition to female and worn a girl’s uniform. Her teachers and fellow students at Maldon primary school, Essex, have been supportive; the school has held assemblies on trans themes and stocked the library with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) books.
The number of children aged 11 and under referred to the NHS for help in dealing with transgender feelings has quadrupled in the past five years, according to figures from the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust – the UK’s only specialist centre for gender issues in under-18s.
Jay Stewart from Gendered Intelligence says that this is becoming more visible, partly because the internet gives young people more reference points. They are now able to identify with children like themselves and think “that’s what I am”, he says.
Elly Barnes, founder of the charity Educate & Celebrate, says on the whole primary schools are very inclusive. “Young children are not born transphobic or racist; the kids don’t care.” Children only recognise gender at about the age of four, she says.
But while primary schools are for the most part well-intentioned, there’s still a lack of knowledge about what to do when a child experiences gender dysphoria. “There’s no clear guidance provided by the Department for Education, hence schools don’t get early warnings about what needs to be done,” says Bernard Reed, a trustee at the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES). He says many schools are “not always aware that they are obliged by the Equality Act 2010 to protect transgender students, and tend to act only when they have to”.