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Gender and school uniform; moving forward

It can be argued that our clothes, accessories, hairstyles and makeup are one of the fundamental external displays of gender that we have. Heteronormative values would have us believe that men should wear trousers, women should wear skirts; men don’t wear makeup, women do; men wear heels, women don’t. But what happens when someone doesn’t fit into the male/female binary, or if someone wears something ordinarily reserved for a different gender? The fight for LGBTQIA+ equality has often been made visible through fashion, with many prominent activists being remembered through their fashion choices and appearance, that reflected their personal expression. Fashion remains one of the main fields in which changing gender attitudes and the continued fight for LGBTQIA+ equality are made most visible, and this applies just as much to the issue of school uniforms.

The origins of school uniform are unclear, but standard uniforms were present in educational institutions as far back as the 16th Century. At this time, the main motivation for a uniform was to provide working class, poor and orphaned children with clothing that represented humility. Given that there were no state schools at this time, uniforms were only present in private or hospital schools. It was only in the 19th Century that State Schools were established and as an indirect result of the Education Act of 1870, all schools began to adopt a uniform in order to promote equality and avoid distinctions between pupils in different social classes. The rebellious attitudes of the 1960s saw the beginnings of a revolt, with many students standing up to authority with simple actions such as unbuttoning of shirts or slackening of ties; small, but important statements by pupils that mirrored the unrest in the country at this time. Through the next four decades, the pushback against uniform continued, with many garments, particularly in Primary Schools, becoming simpler, more casual and available in supermarkets. In the last 10 years, the discussion has moved towards an examination of how uniform impacts on our views of gender and how it can curtail the rights of the individual to dress as ‘themselves’. Although this discourse has no doubt happened throughout the last 100 years, the first prominent protests against gendered uniforms came in the late 2010s.

In 2017, a group of boys in Devon wore skirts to school, as the uniform policy wouldn’t allow for shorts in the summer regardless of girls having the choice of skirts or trousers1. Although their main aim was to force the school to change their policy, it was one of the catalysts for starting real debate around genderless uniforms and the unnecessary restrictions that schools place on attire.

In several private schools in the UK, uniform has changed very little from as far back as the 16th Century, some still comprising the distinctive blue outer coat, yellow socks and leather belts present in Tudor hospital schools. Interestingly, despite the images some of the schools’ websites showing (assumingly) male and female students wearing identical uniforms, the accompanying text from one particular school explicitly states that whilst the uniform is provided free of charge, there are separate requirements for boys and girls2. This begs the question of what happens to a non-binary pupil, or what if a girl decides that she would like to wear breeches or trousers? Although the said school has achieved an award for their LGBT work, neither their website or prospectus alludes to gender equality of freedom of choice with uniform; preferring instead to laud the history of the uniform. Whilst tradition and respecting our roots are no doubt important, when they begin to exclude marginalised groups, then we, as a society, should assess whether they indeed have value, or hark back to a time of prejudice and inequality.

In 2019, a school in East Sussex tried to remove the argument over gender uniform by insisting that all pupils wore trousers3. Whilst no doubt rooted in good intentions, this instead removed the rights of girls and their freedom of expression by expecting them to dress in the ‘male uniform’. This action resulted in protests, parental complaints and the police being called to the school. This demonstrates that gender continues to be a contentious issue and forcing people to dress or act a certain way, almost always invariably ends in protest and upheaval.

So how can schools balance the rights of the individual, freedom of expression, expectations of parents and the community, tradition and legacy, and allow all individuals to feel like themselves? Schools where gender neutrality in uniform has been successful have often considered first of all what the purpose of the uniform is and what is its functionality. Secondly, starting with the marginalised pupils, they have considered what their needs are and how the restrictions will impact on their wellbeing and treatment by others. What uniform could a non-binary, a transitioning, or gender fluid pupil wear? What, then, are the options for pupils who would like to express a traditional gender role? Finally, removing all mention of gender from any uniform policy allows for personal choice and expression, within the confines of the uniform policy. This is not to deny that the concept of gender exists, but to remove the stigma for marginalised individuals so that all pupils’ clothes reflect their own identity. By considering these questions, uniform should meet its goal of reducing stigma caused by social class and economic backgrounds, allowing all pupils to express their gender within the confines of the uniform and be practical throughout the year, including in lessons such as Physical Education.

Schools should also we wary of confusing this issue with the growing contention around trans rights. Although uniform policy will inevitably impact on trans pupils, especially if they are transitioning in school, the discussion over gender restrictions and stereotypes affect all pupils. Schools who have not faced backlash from communities when introducing genderless uniforms have ensured that their rationale for change is shared with all stakeholders and that they make clear that they are taking into account the rights and wellbeing of all pupils.

School uniforms have a place in the British education system and there is no denying that, but if their function is truly to improve equality and parity, then all pupils must feel comfortable in the clothes that they are wearing. This is only a small part of the journey towards pupils of all gender and sexual expressions feeling supported and celebrated in school, but as one of the most visual declarations of a school’s solidarity with their pupils, it is an important issue that must be addressed.

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