After removing uniform gender labels at Brighton College, Richard Cairns explains why it was one of the school's best decisions
Just over a year ago, a female pupil and her parents came to me to discuss her school uniform. At home, and out with friends and family, this pupil had, for quite a few years, been dressing as a boy. She felt happier and more at ease, her parents told me, when dressed this way and would it be possible for her to wear our boys’ blazer, trousers, shirt and tie here at school?
Brighton College was established 172 years ago and our uniform policy has been pretty straightforward in all that time. Boys wore trousers, blazers, shirts and ties and girls, when they arrived here in 1988, wore skirts, bolero jackets and blouses.
But this is the sort of school that doesn’t just repeat tradition blindly. My overriding concern has always been that the boys and girls here are happy and confident in their skin because only then can they grow and flourish. They cannot fulfil their ambitions and achieve their goals academically, on the sports field, on the stage or in the dance hall if they are struggling with unresolved personal issues. And in this particular pupil’s case, struggling with her identity.
That is why, last January, I decided to introduce a new uniform policy that simply stated that there were two types of uniform: a trouser one and a skirt one.
I removed gender labels because I am more interested in my pupils’ welfare and happiness than adhering to the status quo. While I was very confident that the pupils would barely bat an eyelid at the new rules (and I was correct on that score – the unanimous response when my decision was reported on in the newspapers was, “what was all the fuss about?!”) I anticipated that I would not get a wholly positive response from some adults.
Which just goes to show that after 25 years of teaching, I can still be surprised. I received many, many emails and letters of support – not just from parents here at Brighton College but from people all over the country saying how refreshing the decision was. A few also shared with me their sadness that their own gender dysphoric children had not been shown the same understanding at their schools.
To us here at Brighton, changing the uniform code was simply the latest manifestation of our determination to encourage thoughtfulness and tolerance at school.
That is why pupils wear wristbands reminding them to carry out what we call random acts of kindness whenever they can and why we have the Rainbow Alliance club which meets weekly to discuss gender and identity issues. Schools cannot be merely exam factories. It is my duty to send pupils out into the world as reflective, community-minded individuals who will contribute to society. And they will only become this sort of adult if we have modelled that behaviour to them in the first place.
This is but one example of that, though one which, I hope, will give a small number of young people a greater sense than ever that they are valued and loved for who they are.