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

Olivia Dickinson

What to consider when writing a school uniform policy

Cost, pupil voice and branded items: what should be included in a policy on school uniform? Olivia Dickinson discusses.

School uniform is often in the news, whether it’s about how the cost is prohibitive for many families, that girls are petitioning to wear trousers, that boys have worn skirts to protest not being allowed shorts in hot weather, or that wearing, or not wearing, a school uniform leads to more (or less!) bullying.

My son is starting secondary school in September, so the rules, cost, material and requirements for a new uniform is currently top of mind for me. One of the first things I noticed, as I tend to apply a ‘gender lens’ to much around me (#everydaysexism), was that the girls’ shirts had pink labels and the boys’ shirts had blue labels. Why?! On the online order page, the boys’ shirts have collar sizes and the girls’ shirts have chest sizes.

DfE guidance

Since November 2021 the DfE has offered statutory guidance on the cost of school uniforms and this is essential reading, particularly in the current cost of living crisis and rise in inflation. The statutory guidance was brought in after campaigns from the Children’s Society and other charities on how costs were going up. The guidance specifically states that the cost of uniform should not deter parents from sending their children to a particular school.

The DfE guidance on school uniforms is non-statutory but covers some sensible and practical actions to consider, including the weather, comfort and children being safely seen in the dark when going to and from school. The guidance is aimed at governors/trustees who are responsible for deciding whether there should be a uniform policy and what it should be.

Why are branded items from specific suppliers needed at all?

Protected characteristics

One of the key areas of the non-statutory guidance is how to ensure the uniform is not discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 to pupils who share a protected characteristic. The statutory guidance is effectively also ensuring that the uniform policy is not excluding children from lower-income families. While socio-economic status is not a protected characteristic, people with disabilities, from an ethnic minority, and single parent families headed up by a woman are disproportionately represented in lower-income households.

The statutory guidance specifies that ‘Schools should keep the use of branded items to a minimum’. I would suggest that schools could go further: why are branded items from specific suppliers needed at all? Most of the big supermarkets sell school uniform items cheaply, and there are services that offer badges that can be ironed or sewn on.

Pupil voice

Mike Deaville, an assistant headteacher at a secondary school, recently tweeted:

‘The student leadership team came to our SLT meeting… Been challenged about skirt length by staff, meant other students (they said boys) felt they had a right to comment too. We’ve changed our approach now.’

The new approach is student-led: ‘Changed “appropriate length” to “finger tips with arms by side” under their direction.’

Talking to anyone about their experience of school uniform, whether when they were at school or now having to navigate it for their own kids, what comes through most is feeling that the rules remove any individuality. You are not being treated as a person, but as an object.

For example, hot weather rules often mean that we are not allowing our children to decide for themselves if they are too hot or too cold. In too many schools, shorts are only allowed in the summer term (my son currently wears shorts all year round, and points out that the girls can have bare legs with skirts all year round), or diktats are handed down that blazers and ties may be removed when the first glimpse of sun arrives in May, but then if it gets cold, the pupils can’t put their jumper or jacket back on. Doesn’t this go against trying to ensure our children can think for themselves, be independent and make their own decisions?

Students from groups with protected characteristics may well offer insights that the governing body cannot. 

Trousers for all?

I have been surprised to discover that at least 40 schools since 2018 have banned skirts from school uniforms altogether; the most recent example was reported recently and girls wearing skirts too short was cited as one of the reasons to ban them. What seemed missing from this decision was proper consultation with parents and pupils. As the DfE non-statutory guidance says, engage with parents and pupils when designing their uniform policy or when making any significant changes - these views should be considered in determining the final policy

Girls in particular often feel their bodies are being policed by the rules on skirt length, or type of trousers they can wear, so replacing one narrow rule for another doesn’t necessarily seem the best solution.

While some may argue this approach is equipping girls well for the society they’ll have to work and live in as women, where their clothing, hair and appearance is often commented on, what it is not equipping boys or girls for is the modern workplace. The emphasis in uniforms on blazers and ties feels particularly archaic since Covid 19 – with home working for office-based jobs, fewer and fewer suits and ties are being worn.

As Matt Pinkett and others before him have pointed out, it is also applying a narrow and middle-class definition to what is appropriate workwear – the jobs some of our kids will do have not yet been invented, and others will require them to wear clothes that are practical and protective (eg electrician, builder, research chemist, nurse).  

Make the process inclusive

Assistant headteacher Mike was tweeting in response to Matt Pinkett, co-author of Boys Don’t Try, asking ‘Rules about skirt length only serve to teach girls that their bodies are sexualised. Discuss’. 

Some of the replies were fascinating; ‘but rules is rules and girls’ skirts are too short!’ Mike’s reply stood out in that it was advocating a student-led approach. I’d love to have seen more of the replies from pupils than from teachers or parents. 

When you are setting your school uniform policy, or making significant changes to your existing one, make sure you: 

  • consult with current and prospective pupils and their parents and carers
  • think about how many rules are really needed
  • consider how many ‘branded items’ are required
  • ensure the uniform is not discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 to pupils who share a protected characteristic. 

A teacher or governor new to the school may be able to give a new perspective on the existing policy, and students from groups with protected characteristics may well offer insights that the governing body cannot. 

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