The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Kirsty Ruthven

School uniform: The gender debate

Kirsty Ruthven, Head of Education at the charity Lifting Limits, casts an eye over the school uniform debate through a gender-equality lens.

We need school uniform to show our identity as a school. It’s important that we all feel part of a group (Year 5 pupil).

I think we should wear our own clothes to school because I want to show my own, individual identity. I don’t think we need a uniform to feel like a school (Year 6 pupil).

These are quotes from pupils in Key Stage 2, debating the pros and cons of school uniform in an English lesson on persuasive writing. At the end of this unit of work, the children will write a letter to their headteacher to call for either the abolition of uniform or for uniform to stay. They often try to persuade the headteacher to  make some adaptations.

After teaching or observing this unit of work for several years, I’ve noticed that the common theme that always emerges is that of identity. Our clothes and what we choose to wear is inextricably linked to who we are, and who we want to show to the world that we are. The fashion designer Miuccia Prada said in an interview that fashion and clothes were ‘an instant language’. 

Uniform is a controversial issue

We never seem too far from a debate or sensational headlines around school uniform. In the context of behaviour and rules, we often see the tabloids featuring pupils being sent home for incorrect uniform, with their irate parents pictured.

The cost of uniform also never seems to be far from the headlines, with a recent report from The Children’s Society finding that high school uniforms cost on average £300 per child and that over half a million children are wearing ill-fitting uniforms due to financial pressures.

Finally, and most interesting to us as a charity, is the idea of gender and school uniforms. Skirts too short? Tops too tight? Can girls wear trousers? Can boys wear skirts? A recent news article from Wales highlighted the debate around skirt length across the country:

Some schools say skirts must be to the knee. Others allow them to be no more than one inch above the knee while one allows pupils to wear skirts two inches above the knee. Others either specify skirts with the school logo or say simply that they must be 'appropriate' length or 'not too short' (Wales Online, June 2021) 

After reading the article, I felt very sorry for the parents of girls who will inevitably grow and change and whose hemlines will therefore change with them. It also made me reflect on the policing of school uniforms and whether this is unfairly weighted towards ‘girls’’ uniforms.

Different global perspectives 

As a teenager in the 1990s, I moved from England to New Zealand – the 12,000 miles really could have been to another planet. I left behind my London school uniform of platform shoes, hitched up skirts and blouses that we would shrink in the wash so they would be more ‘flattering’.

I arrived in New Zealand to find that it was only acceptable to wear the longest school skirt possible, accompanied with the flattest shoes or sandals and, in the warm summer months, bare feet were often the norm.

The most revolutionary thing I remember from the uniform was that the skirts had pockets! The uniform, though gendered, was comfortable and functional. 

This move really opened my eyes to make me question who was I dressing for in the UK. Was altering our school uniform a simple act of rebellion and boundary pushing, or was there something else that had been more deeply ingrained in us about our bodies and how they should look?

Consider the practicalities

Our work at Lifting Limits is predominantly centred on the primary and early years, and we work in a number of contrasting schools.

Clothes and uniform come up often in our discussions with school staff. Some schools have no school uniform, many have moved to non-gendered uniforms and others have what could be considered as rather ‘traditional’ gendered uniform policies.

I have taught in schools where girls have come to school in shoes that they can’t run in, and boys have been made to struggle on still wearing ties and with their top button done up in the summer.

I have had girls complain about the itchiness of tights and the ridiculousness of trying to put them back on after a school swimming lesson and boys commenting on how envious they are of the cool and comfortable summer dresses the girls are allowed to wear.

What are the implications of your uniform policy?

The debate around the right path to take with school uniform is ongoing, but I would ask school leaders to reflect on these questions.

  • Who is the school uniform for? Is it functional, comfortable and affordable? Does it encourage movement and play in younger pupils?
  • What do the pupils think of their uniform? How does it contribute to their idea of a school identity? Are the uniforms gendered? Do they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes?
  • Is one gender ‘policed’ more around their school uniform? Why is this? Does something need to change?
  • Do your children push the uniform boundaries? Are there deeper issues to explore other than a simple rebellion?

It seems that school uniform is intrinsically linked to school life in the UK and will always polarise opinions.

If clothes tell the world who we are as individuals, what do school uniforms tell the world about who you are as a school?

Lifting Limits

Lifting Limits is a national charity set up in 2018, with a mission to challenge gender stereotypes and promote gender equality in and through education. It currently works with over 25 primary schools, and aspires to work with over 200 schools over the next five years.

It is currently recruiting primary schools within the Greater London area for a January start on the programme. For more information, visit:

Liftinglimits.org.uk
@LiftingLimitsUK on Twitter
@liftinglimitsuk on Instagram.

 

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