by Laura Potts

The long standing debate regarding gendered school uniform has been raised once more in the news recently, when a number of students at Isca academy in Exeter chose the much cooler option of wearing a school skirt in the recent high temperatures. They were protesting the fact that students are not allowed to wear shorts.

This is not an isolated case, but one of several in recent months. One call centre worker in Buckinghamshire, for example, also chose to question his firm’s anti-shorts rules by wearing a dress, and his tweets about this act of defiance went viral. Protests like these partly reveal the rigidity that gendered uniform creates – but, contrary to what most coverage suggests, the issue goes much deeper than just whether schools allow shorts and skirts in hot weather.

All children should be encouraged to have free choice in how they wear their uniform, regardless of gender.

In recent decades, many people have come to understand gender more accurately, as a spectrum rather than the rigid male-female divide entrenched in old-fashioned expectations. And many campaigns have been launched around the world that focus on the issue of gender inequality and the damage done by a strict gender divide. The venerable tradition of gendered uniform in our educational institutions plays a major role in enforcing this divide, for no valid reason. This teaches us, from a young age, that boys and girls are fundamentally different and should be separated in some way. Your sex and gender do not dictate your interests or actions, in school or anywhere else. All children should be encouraged to have free choice in how they wear their uniform, regardless of gender.

There are other more general problems with school uniform as well as those to do with gender. The most concerning is the pressure of conformity being forced upon young school children. It’s notable that the school in Exeter didn’t actually punish any of the boys for wearing skirts. Presumably their uniform policy doesn’t forbid it, because that would be seen as unfairly restrictive in a time when gender fluidity is seeing a lot of mainstream discussion. No doubt the teachers and managers at the school would laud the importance of allowing children to express themselves. But given the unfair restrictiveness of having a uniform in the first place, there is deep institutional hypocrisy at play here and in all schools with uniform.

It is often argued that school uniform is an appropriate form of ‘preparation’ for later life. In other words, it teaches people how to conform and obey rules so they will be ready to enter the capitalist workplace. This repression is instilled through gendered uniform and also through the drab nature of school garments, particularly that ultimate symbol of the ideology of corporate blandness, the necktie. The system is set up to create individuals ready to spend their lives dressing in a way that our institutions and businesses deem ‘appropriate’, never to rebel or to stand out. It ultimately fails at this, of course, but nonetheless this restriction of self expression and individuality holds back the development of creativity and initiative and is detrimental to society’s ability to accept diversity.

All that said, uniform does stand against a certain sort of prejudice: having all children dressed in similar clothes can go some way towards preventing discrimination on the basis of wealth. For me this is one of the only positives of school uniform. To some degree it levels the playing field, allowing children to prove themselves through their minds and actions instead of their sense of style. Flexible gender neutral uniforms could be a solution to allowing all students to express themselves as individuals, and less as society’s stereotypes.

 Flexible gender neutral uniforms could be a solution to allowing all students to express themselves as individuals, and less as society’s stereotypes.

The institutions that are shaping our future citizens should move with the changing understanding of gender and individuality to encourage diversity. Challenging the rigidity of the gender binary, encouraging young minds to view male and female as equal and gender as more fluid, would start to break the cycle of reinforcement of harmful inequalities and reduce the need for extensive self-reeducation in young adulthood. It will encourage the next generation to value each child for who they are rather than whether they stick to needless rules.

Featured image © BBC/Apex


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