Why do we have uniform in schools? There are many reasons, ranging from catering to our innate tribal instincts and uniting a student body, to keeping pupils’ concentration levels high in the classroom, to simply looking smart. It’s unlikely schools will be ditching them anytime soon.
However, parents, teachers and students alike are calling for change. Arguments for gender-specific dress codes hold less and less water as the years go by and ethnic minority students are tired of fighting for their right to wear clothes and hairstyles that they are comfortable in at school.
If schools are to be places of security for the adults of tomorrow and are to model the traits that they wish to see in the world at large, then we should surely make it as easy as possible for students to express their individual identities in daily school life.
The purpose of uniform
Wearing uniform is often thought to improve student performance; it can involve fewer day-to-day decisions and be less distracting and stressful for pupils, as it levels the playing field by reducing comparison.
Some schools experimented with relaxing uniform rules during the Covid-19 pandemic. The effect on pupils was stark at Ludgrove School in Wokingham, where Kate Hamilton-Bowker is a teaching assistant. “We allowed the kids to wear home clothes during lockdown, but their motivation and engagement was not great. We then trialled putting them back in uniform for a week and their work ethic and output improved noticeably across all subjects,” she says.
Mark Stevenson, co-chair of the Schoolwear Association and joint CEO of uniform provider Stevensons, says: “Uniform helps to alleviate inequality and reduce levels of bullying for students, by removing the pressure to dress in the latest fashion or high-street brands.
“For schools, a uniform helps to promote a sense of pride in the school community and improve concentration in the classroom. Teachers who have seen an increase in disruptive behaviour on non-uniform days will not be surprised to hear that 60% of school leaders have found that uniform improves pupils’ educational outcomes.”
Gender and uniform
Historically, schools have had different uniform items for girls and boys. However, this can cause issues for students who identify differently from their gender assigned at birth.
Caroline Bunting, managing director of uniform manufacturer Perry Uniform, says: “I recently interviewed the son of a friend who has transitioned and asked him about his experience when it came to wearing uniform. He told me that in his teenage years it was a huge issue to have to approach firstly his parents and then the school to ask if he did not have to wear the winter skirt.”
Gender-neutral uniform policies are one solution. In 2019, Stevensons introduced changes to their product ranges and packaging to support schools looking to move to gender-neutral uniform options. Stevenson explains: “The majority of examples where schools have switched to a gender-neutral uniform policy is to meet the needs of a child that is transitioning and are adapting their uniform rules accordingly.”
To be clear, a gender-neutral uniform is not about forcing students to wear a different ‘neutral’ style of uniform. It’s about offering more choice with items that avoid distinguishing roles according to gender. For example, if a girl wishes to dress in a skirt, she should be as allowed to do so as before, only now a boy may also choose to wear a skirt if he wishes.
Harvey*, who teaches at an independent school in South London, says: “I think the sense of belonging and promoting the collective identity raises an important question for gender-neutral uniforms. Uniforms do a great job at promoting belonging if students buy into the collective identity of the school. However, if the school’s collective identity is not one that speaks to students, they are much less likely to buy into the uniform.”
In 2019, the Welsh government updated statutory guidelines to say that, in Wales, “schools’ uniform policies should not dictate different items of clothing on the basis of sex/gender”. This sort of development may soon be on its way for the rest of the UK too.
There are also issues with gender-specific uniforms reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. Let Clothes Be Clothes’s recent report, School Uniform: Dressing Girls to Fail, shows that in over 70% of state schools girls’ uniform options cost significantly more than boys’ uniform, due to less generic ‘bought anywhere’ items. There were also more complex rules around dress codes for girls, and the term ‘modesty’ was used in girls’ uniform policies only.
Tim James, co-founder of uniform supplier Schoolblazer, says it is important to ensure girls have enough choices that make them feel comfortable, and they are moving fast to develop more options for female students. “While research shows that most girls want to wear skirts, and we would support their continuation, many girls want an option and some actively feel uncomfortable or even exposed in a skirt. Trousers are the obvious option, along with shorts or cullottes,” he says.
Schools must make sure their uniform policies are inclusive of religious minority students, who may, for example, want to wear a longer skirt for religious reasons. These differences must be accommodated with enthusiasm if schools wish to be places of security and comfort for young people.
There are plenty of documented instances of discrimination against people with afro-textured hair (despite it being illegal) in schools, and many more undocumented, with Black people being told that their hair looks ‘unprofessional’. According to the Halo Collective, whose mission is to end hair inequality, 58% of Black students experience name-calling or uncomfortable questions about their hair at school.
Schools can sign up to the Halo Code to show their support for students with afro hairstyles and ensure their uniform rules do not pressurise these students to change their hair. Sutton High School was the first independent girls’ school to adopt the Halo Code, but many others have also joined, including Blackheath High School and Nottingham Girls’ High School.
Making a change
Let Clothes Be Clothes explores what gender-neutral uniform could look like in practice, with a choice of “generic trousers, shorts, dresses and skirts for all pupils”. And Educate & Celebrate, which provides LGBT+ inclusion training for staff, have provided an example of a gender-neutral uniform policy online.
James says schools need to think about what the true problem is before making any changes. “Is it a small number of vocal pupils, a single transitioning pupil or a wider issue about choice? The solutions vary. For a pupil who genuinely wishes to present as another gender, usually the relevant uniform is fully available, although some fit modifications may be needed. If the issue is a worry about stereotyping, then the addition of some choices to the girls’ uniform may be the most appropriate response.”
Harvey points out that the process of making big changes may not be straightforward. “There needs to be an anticipation of the response. Would gender-neutral uniforms be introduced to replace current uniforms or as a second/third option for students? In the former case, some students might feel that their uniforms are being changed in a way they dislike and in the latter option, the wearing of these new uniforms could become stigmatised or a worry for bullying.”
Stevenson advises schools to work closely with their uniform suppliers before choosing to adopt a gender-neutral uniform. He says: “It is vital that they consider stock availability and costs so that any chosen style does not have a difference in price between equivalent options. The lack of classification between garments can be confusing for the majority of parents, so it is vital that communication is clear between schools, suppliers, parents and pupils to ensure that the change is successful.”
As highly respected social institutions, schools must go the extra mile in terms of being accommodating of difference and individuality. Harvey adds: “If schools can be more inclusive, it should send the message that society at large can be too.”
*Name has been changed
Gender identity and expression
“Gender identity is someone’s personal and intimate sense of their own gender. Gender expression is how they choose to reflect their gender identity in their physical appearance.
“Don’t make assumptions about someone’s gender based on the way they dress – it may not reflect their gender identity or the appearance usually associated with their gender identity.”