Teachwire Logo
Rising stars
Rising stars

Transgender pupils in Primary Schools – Would you be ready to provide the right support?

With the rapid rise in gender dysphoria referrals to the NHS among young people, it's time schools become more aware about the issues involved. Let's make a change...

  • Transgender pupils in Primary Schools – Would you be ready to provide the right support?

What do you know about gender dysphoria? A little, probably, maybe even quite a bit, but how much training have you had in supporting transgender pupils?

The ATL recently raised concerns voiced by teachers about the lack of meaningful, informed discussion surrounding gender identity in schools, and part of the problem, of course, is that we’re still in the early stages of the conversation surrounding the subject.

There remains a great deal of ignorance, naivety, fear and intolerance. Most of which comes simply from a place of unknowing. We’ve all heard the objections: boys are boys and girls are girls; it’s just a phase; ignore it and it’ll go away.

Just last month when a question on the entry form for Brighton primary schools was reworded, asking which gender (if any) each child most identified with, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen called the move ‘ridiculous’ saying, ‘Schools should be teaching kids to read and write, not prompting them to consider gender swaps’.

But for many, this kind of thinking is not just outdated, it’s potentially harmful. The statistics for transgender children and young people make for grim reading. Pace, the LGBT charity, conducted a four-year study that found 48 per cent of the young transgender people polled had attempted suicide – compare this to the national rate found by the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity survey, which is just six per cent. The report also noted that 59 per cent of participants had thought about suicide, and 59 per cent self harmed.

Around one in 100 children deals with gender dysphoria in some form, and the number of child referrals to the NHS is rapidly rising. From just 17 young people in 2009-10, there were 314 referrals in 2012-13, 697 in 2014-15 and over 1,000 in 2015-16. This is not a remote or abstract issue; it affects many young people in schools who need our help.

A positive difference

Rather than waiting for a child, or his or her parent, or a staff member to come forward, there are calls for us to be proactive in educating staff and children about the diverse array of people in our world. “It’s almost as if schools are frightened of the recriminations, so they try to sweep gender dysphoria under the carpet,” says Susie Green, Chair CEO of charity Mermaids UK.

“Half are good, half are appalling – there doesn’t really seem to be any middle ground. The good schools are fully behind it, while the bad ones often take a stance of ‘we’re not going to address this’. They’re dealing with a difficult situation that they’ve never come across before, and they probably aren’t aware of the legalities.”

Susie is always ready to step in should schools find themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, on the wrong side of the law. This included correcting one headteacher who told the parents of a transgender pupil that if they insisted on letting their child present as a different gender, then the school would have to write a letter home to all the other parents, letting them know there was a transgender student in their son or daughter’s year group.

“I had to write to the school to tell them that would be illegal,” she explains. “It would not only be breaking data protection, but actively discriminating against this young person because of her gender identity.”

She also dealt with one case with two primary schools that were just a couple of miles apart in distance, but many miles apart in terms of their support of students. “The child had been expressing as male since he was four, but his school refused to use his new name unless the mum got a deed poll done,” Susie says.

“But she couldn’t, because that would require her ex’s input, and she didn’t want to contact him because he was abusive. He hadn’t seen the children for years and she didn’t want him in their lives. So the mum started talking to the other nearby school, which said that not accepting the child for who he was would be damaging, and that if she wanted to bring him to their setting, he would be accepted completely.”

Schools should be aware that the Equality Act is very clear about this – any child dealing with these issues has the right to be known as, and to be accepted as, the gender with which he or she affirms.

“The bottom line is that if you have a child who has gender dysphoria, he or she does not need to have had any sort of treatment, or diagnosis,” says Susie. By denying children the ability to live and present as who they need to be, you’re telling them that something that’s so much a part of them is not allowed – that there’s something wrong with them. It’s essential that they are accepted, supported and loved, no matter what.”

Non-fixed mindset

So, how can we move into a position of acceptance and understanding? A good place to start is with the term gender dysphoria itself, which isn’t just “I want to be a boy/girl”; it’s the opposite of euphoria, and so refers to any discomfort felt at the difference between your sex and gender. In other words, gender identity is complex and varied.

A 2012 report from Bath University on transgender adults found that 40 per cent of participants had a constant and clear gender identity as a woman, and 25 per cent as a man. But 23 per cent considered themselves to be non-binary, while three per cent said ‘other’, and another three per cent ‘no gender identity’. Six per cent said ‘unsure’.

Kirstie McEwan, a psychosexual therapist who specialises in gender and sexual diversity, says that children start to exhibit gender dysphoria or variant behaviours as their self awareness develops, around the age of four.

“There aren’t many reliable statistics, but children who display this behaviour can go a number of different ways, especially by the time they start puberty,” she says. “They may transition completely to the opposite sex, they might not, they may become more variant and fluid or remain as gay adults, rather than those with gender difficulties.”

But even with the possibility that a child’s dysphoria might be temporary, this is no reason to disregard it as a phase, says Kirstie. “The key is to support the child or young person at every stage to decide how he feels in moving forward. And in the early stages you’ve got to let a gender-variant child choose. And she may not know which way she wants to go, and swing backwards and forwards, but if you try to force her into a new gender, that can be as harmful as keeping her in a gender. We’re going through a period in society at the moment where the binaries of male/female and man/woman are being thrown out the window. So, you need to be flexible and supportive of the choices that child makes, while educating the adults and children around her.”

What’s in a name?

Considering gendered language is another important factor; it can pigeonhole gender-variant children, and reinforce stereotypes, as Rose Wheatley (name changed), head of an Oxfordshire primary, found through staff training with Educate and Celebrate.

“The support we received challenged a lot of our perceptions of the gender-specific language we use, such as ‘good girl’ and ‘good boy’, and taught us to be more diverse in the way we handle children,” says Rose. “Gender-specific language fuels stereotypes. And we do this in schools all the time. We break out into gender groups, we provide sports based on gender. Now, I think we’re becoming much better at preventing ourselves from doing that, so the session was a really positive experience.”

Rachel Dalloway (name changed) a head in another Oxfordshire primary, provided similar training for her staff through the charity Stonewall. “We try to avoid saying ‘boys line up here, girls line up here’ or things like ‘I need a couple of good strong boys’ if something needs moving. But the biggest lesson for me is that you will make mistakes – you will use the wrong pronoun, for instance. You can get very anxious about this, but the important thing is to ask the child what they want, how they want to be treated and what they want to be called.”

This might be difficult at first, gender pronouns are ingrained in our lexicon. And we don’t really have a suitable neutral pronoun to use without sounding like a robot. One nation, however, recently solved this same problem – Sweden. Rather than ‘hon’ (she) or ‘han’ (he), Swedes can now use ‘hen’, after it was added to the dictionary last year. This makes it possible to talk about or to a person without revealing gender – whether it’s unnecessary information, whether it’s unknown information, or if the person in question does not identify solely as one gender.

Even the word ‘transition’ has raised some debate. Think about it, if someone feels that she is a different gender to her biological sex, and wants to present as that gender, she probably doesn’t feel like she’s transitioning at all, merely presenting her true self.

We may still be heading into relatively unknown territory as a society, but at least this conversation is starting to take place in schools, businesses and in mainstream news. And there are some incredible organisations and charities out there doing great work, where you can go for advice, resources and information – organisations such as GIRES, Stonewall, Educate and Celebrate and Mermaids.

Whatever fears we have of getting things wrong, this conversation must go on, it must get louder and it must get deeper. And the only way we do that is through understanding and educating ourselves and others. Gender is varied, gender is fluid, and people are people. And all of us deserve acceptance, support and love.

Children’s names have been changed for this feature as have those of some of the adults where noted

Case studies

1 | Thomas, by Rose Wheatley

“The children weren’t fazed at all”

Amelia had considered herself a boy since the age of four. So, despite presenting as a girl – and being a girl on all our official documentation – Amelia returned to school after the summer break having transitioned to Thomas. We informed all of the staff, and discussed with the class teacher how best to tell the children. We were conscious that it had to be low key, without fuss and that it was important to stick to the facts.

The children weren’t fazed at all. They were quick to adapt to Thomas’ new name and pronoun. A few parents of pupils from other years questioned what was going on, but the staff soon put a stop to any gossip. We made no overt announcements, and this understated approach really helped to draw attention away from Thomas.

The Educate and Celebrate training on LGBGT+ introduced us staff to the appropriate language and all words on the gender identity spectrum, and it also challenged our views on stereotyping and the use of gender-specific language and colours. Ten months on it is noticeable how little is mentioned of Amelia who became Thomas.

2 | Aaron, by Emily Edwards

“How could I not have seen this before?”

My son, Aaron, is five now. He was born a boy, and is still a boy, but a lot of the time he wants to be a girl. Ever since he could play dressing up he always wanted to be princesses, all his friends were girls and he was always playing with ‘girly’ toys. But halfway through reception he started to be a bit more vocal about saying, “I want to be a girl”.

My initial reaction was shock, partly at myself for not having realised it. How could I not have seen this before? I spoke to his teacher, who is also the SENCo, and with whom he has a great rapport, and he’d told her the same thing. She immediately said that the school is absolutely accepting about any differences amongst students and she was very supportive.

Right now, a year later, he describes himself as ‘a girly boy’. We haven’t moved towards transitioning, and he doesn’t say he wants to go to school as a girl, or wear a girls’ uniform – beyond wearing a cardigan. He tends to choose more girly clothes outside of school, or for non-uniform days, and it’s been no big deal.

The school has been brilliant. I said to staff that I very much feel like this is a journey, and it might come to nothing, it might just be that he’s slightly more interested in ‘girly’ things, it might remain fluid or it might lead to him eventually fully transitioning. For me, it’s just about emotionally and socially supporting him; the most important thing is that my child is happy.

3 | Olivia, by Lena Parker

“It was just the most life-affirming thing”

When Lizzie Atwell’s son, James, was due to join our reception class, she came in to speak to me about how he was showing signs of gender dysphoria. At that point we knew absolutely nothing about it, but it’s been an incredibly positive story.

James was very focused on playing with girls and dressing like girls out of school. By the end of Year 3, he started talking about himself in terms of ‘she’. What we didn’t know was that James had been living as a girl most of the time at home. Lizzie told us that things were bursting at the seams, and that her daughter wanted to come to school as her true self.

When James arrived on the playground as Olivia, I saw a huddle of children gathering and whispering, and feared the worst. But I soon realised I had no need to panic. These children were asking a teacher if they could get some bits to make welcome cards for Olivia.

Later in the year we knew things were going well when she put herself forward for school council election and her peer group voted her in. For LGBT History Month, we did a thing in the playground where children dress in different colours to form a rainbow. And there was Olivia, holding a rainbow flag, just bombing up and down the playground while mum and dad watched. It was just the most life-affirming thing.

Useful Links

If you need more help, advice or information for staff, parents or children, or even ideas for lessons, Susie Green of Mermaids has compiled this list:

Changing names
Useful sites for teachers

Useful videos

A short trailer that features a series of e-learning resources to help practitioners and families understand better how to support trans people

Victoria Derbyshire show Lilly and Jessica

CBBC ‘I am Leo’

It gets better: Parents of transgender children

TED talk by Endocrinologist Norman Spack about treating young people with gender dysphoria

Transexual Teen, Beauty Queen


Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Make sure your assessment is effective with these expert insights.

Find out more here >