The politics of school uniform

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I’ve come to the conclusion there’s something wrong with the world. The problem; the school uniform that girls are expected to wear. This might sound like a hard hitting statement to make, but having watched my eldest daughter at play, I think school uniform limits physical play and reinforces unhelpful gender stereotypes.

school unifrom, school, schooling, Ja',mie Private School Girl,
Should school uniform for girls be updated?  Pic from superb Australian comedy Ja’mie Private School Girl. Pic credit: HBO

This is something that has been on my mind since I took part in a panel discussion at the Women of the World Festival in London earlier this year. One of the participants was a nursery school teacher from Iceland who had also worked in the UK.

This individual remarked that gender stereotyping in the UK was dreadful and she didn’t like the school uniform girls were expected to wear. She elaborated by saying dresses and skirts are impractical for young girls who want to climb trees and take part in other physical activities.

It was a throwaway remark. Even so, it stuck in my mind.

Summer has arrived and the kids are spending more time playing outside. I can’t help feeling there’s something in the comment made by my Icelandic friend.

I watch my own daughter, Helen, run across her school playground or play football in knee high socks. If she were to trip and fall, she’d lose the skin from her knees. In fact, she is forever coming home with bumps and scrapes on her legs.

Like many of her friends, she also enjoys gymnastics. She’ll spend ages practicing hand stands and cartwheels. Needless to say, when she’s wearing her school uniform, her dress falls down round her shoulders. This may not be a huge issue for a seven-year-old, but in a year or two she’ll be much more self-conscious and I predict the gymnastics practice will only happen behind closed doors. The days of practicing in the park or the school playing field with friends will be lost, thanks to the antiquated school uniform girls are expected to wear.

Boys, in their trousers and shorts, have an edge when it comes to physical play. They’re much less likely to hurt themselves or reveal their underwear to the world.

In my experience of having two daughters, young girls are quite capable of enjoying physical play. My children enjoy sports, they enjoy using all the play equipment in parks and more than once I’ve had to rescue Helen from a tree she’s climbed up (thankfully she’s never got much further than waist height, I simply think her enthusiasm and curiosity means she doesn’t give much thought to getting down!). The uniform she and primary-aged girls from across the UK are expected to wear hardly encourages such endeavours.

Something else has also influenced my thinking. It’s a fascinating and rather brilliant book called Man Up, written by former BBC producer Rebecca Asher. In the book, Asher explores how boys are conditioned into becoming macho men, afraid (or sometimes unable) to express their feelings and the huge price society pays for this.

Much of this starts in the very earliest years when parents frequently and unconsciously give boys unhealthy messages about masculinity. In subsequent years, this is reinforced by the school system.

Turning Asher’s theory on its head, I can’t help feeling school uniform sends girls unhelpful messages about femininity. Expecting young girls, who are naturally curious about the world, to wear uniform that is impractical for exploring it seems daft. It unwittingly suggests to girls that physical activity is not for them.

Yes, okay, as is the case at most schools, my daughter is free to wear trousers if she wishes. As so few girls do, she simply refuses to wear them. The last time I suggested this to her, she simply looked at me as if I were completely insane.

I am all for school uniform. I think it is a great leveler. It may be different at secondary school, but at primary school you can’t tell the difference between those kids from wealthier and less privileged backgrounds. For us parents, it also saves so much hassle as we know what clothes to have ready Monday through to Friday.

I want school uniform to stay. I also think there is a very simple solution; give girls the option of wearing leggings. This would be much more practical and less limiting. Either that, or temporarily make trousers compulsory in all schools, then relax the rules and see how many girls remain in them. At least this way girls would have a choice and it would be a way of making it acceptable.

What do you think about girls’ school uniform? Is it too limiting? Does it send the wrong messages to youngsters? Please leave a message below with your thoughts.

34 thoughts on “The politics of school uniform”

  1. I’ve never thought about this! I think we can’t be too hard on school uniform as girls do have the option of wearing trousers. They actually have far more choice than boys – at most primary schools they are allowed to wear trousers, skirts, dresses and shorts, whereas boys just have trousers or shorts. Everything else they wear is the same as boys. With most primary schools wearing polo shirts and sweatshirts these days, uniforms are no more restrictive than the clothes they wear at home.
    For handstands and cartwheels in the playground, our school insists girls put their PE shorts on under their school dresses, which they are all happy to do.

    1. I think the issue is making trousers acceptable to girls. My daughter flatly refuses to wear them to school as her friends don’t. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of girls that do. Sensible, practical clothing that does not limit play needs to be appealing and I think leggings would be one way to break down that barrier.

      Of course we then get open the floodgates; should boys be allowed to wear dresses and skirts!

  2. Your solution of allowing girls to wear leggings is perfect. Unfortunately, did you hear about the school that banned girls from wearing them because they are too distracting for boys (or something).

    1. Thanks Simon, glad you like the idea! I haven’t heard of that school, no. I can’t help feeling that sounds like a highly dubious reason for banning leggings. The thought of five year old boys eyeing up girls is questionable.

  3. Spotlight On Inclusion

    You should get in touch with @trousersforall they campaign for exactly this.
    But why suggest leggings, just let them wear trousers!

    1. I think the question should be turned round; why not leggings? Trousers simply do not appeal to some girls. My daughter flatly refuses to wear them to school as it isn’t seen as acceptable.

      Leggings would allow girls to dress in a feminine way. They can be teamed with dresses and skirts or worn on their own while also allowing girls to enjoy as much physical play as they wish. The idea is not to enforce an androgynous dress code on kids, simply to ensure uniforms are practical and don’t limit either gender from playing how they wish. Trousers could achieve this, but leggings would probably be more acceptable to most girls.

  4. I completely agree. Also the shoes that are considered available for girls limit physical activity from a very young age. I found it extememly hard to find school shoes for my 5 year old daughter that weren’t open topped with a strap. Whilst all the ‘boys’ shoes are basically comfy leather trainers that make running climbing and jumping so much easier. Needless to say, when I got her the comfy ones that she wanted she was teased by other girls for wearing ‘boys shoes’ – now she wears dark trainers and the school has not complained… So far…

    1. I hadn’t even thought of shoes! My eldest’s last pair suffered some major damage around the time she discovered a love of football. There may very well be something in what you are saying. You do get some great trainers designed for girls, but they tend to be in very loud colours. I am going to ponder over this. I think my idea may need to be expanded further to include shoes. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. I think leggings are horrendous so couldn’t abide seeing these as part of school uniform. There’s a muslim girl at our primary who does wear them under her school dress (only to knee length though because underlayers (vests etc) aren’t allowed to be seen under polo shirts etc). The others wear trousers.

    While most of the girls at school wear skirts or dresses, they are allowed to wear more options than boys. Personally I don’t have an issue with it. Girls (and boys) are unlikely to be allowed to climb trees in school time anyway. For handstands, we used to do them with our dresses hoicked up into our pants. It’s only nowadays that people are more aware of potential issues (and I suppose with puberty hitting girls earlier now there’s that to think about too) than in my day when it wasn’t even thought out. Gym knickers or shorts at breaktimes underneath would be fine.

    I think if girls were that self conscious but found it restrictive then they’d choose to wear trousers. If they feel they stand out – then sell the benefits to them (or culottes which are still more like a skirt, although probably less cool), and hopefully they’d learn that different can be good if the benefits outweigh the downside.

    But then I have a boy who I struggle to get into shorts even when it’s boiling hot, so I guess I’m not the person to ask. I prefer to see girls in school uniform which is skirt or dress – they always look so much smarter than the trouser equivalent, or at least the primary girls at our school.

    1. I think this is about so much more than looks. See Ania’s comment about kids wearing track suit style uniform. So long as it kept feminine / masculine styling I think it would be a great idea.

      I think there is an issue, but it stares us all in the face and its so obvious we’re missing it. Boys are always described as active and physical. My girls are incredibly active and physical and I encourage them to be. Many girls, however, aren’t and sticking them in school uniform that limits play strengthens these stereotypes about boys being physical and girls not playing that way.

      My daughter can wear trousers to school, but very few girls do so. It just isn’t the done thing so the girls don’t do it. It’s a barrier that needs to be broken down.

  6. David Shaul - DadvWorld

    I enjoyed reading this. Uniform is just another issue from a very long list of how schools are still stuck on the stone age and are failing to keep up with the times. Personally I’d prefer to pay more attention to building young people that don’t care what brand their peers are wearing and do away with uniform. Our daughter’s high school don’t have uniform and there’s never been an issue. It’s a very forward thinking school. Nowadays too I’d say most children are able to dress nicely with any budget. It’s a tough topic.

    1. It is a tough topic. I’m a huge fan of uniform, but I don’t think schools are getting it right. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Both my girls love physical play. I hate the idea of this being limited by some antiquated school uniform they will be forced to wear and then wear skirts simply because wearing trousers is frowned upon socially. My kid is seven and experiencing this stuff. Seven….no wonder so much inequality still exists in this world.

  7. I approve of school uniform for various reasons – cost, practicality, uniformity(!) etc. I feel the uniform should not be divided down gender lines: I don’t give a flying monkey’s if a boy wears a skirt, however, I desperately, desperately wanted to wear trousers and sensible shoes at school. We had a climbing frame in the playground – but girls using it would have to put up with the boys sitting at the bottom so they could stare up the skirts. Another “great game” the boys enjoyed was lifting up girls’ skirts and showing off their underwear. This was 5-8 year-olds, and already we recognised that there was an imbalance of power between the sexes. If trousers go any way to breaking down that imbalance (and allowing girls to enjoy activities more) then I am all for it.

    1. Very sad experiences you had at school. I’ve not heard anything like that at my daughter’s school so I hope times have changed. It is, however, exactly that type of thing that bothers me. Whether boys are looking up skirts or not, girls will naturally become self-conscious at some point about revealing their underwear to the world and this limits play. Boys do not show off underwear to the world, so why should girls? Girls’ legs are also largely unprotected. It all seems so daft.

  8. Left to their own devices, girls will often opt for jeans, leggings or shorts over dresses ( though there will be plenty of those as well) – yet we give them a choice of skirts and dresses for school. My daughter does wear trousers to school occasionally, mostly in the colder months, but alternatives for summer school wear are sparse. She is now (Y2) beginning to be conscious of her knockers showing and like Helen, climbing trees, gymnastics etc are her favourite things to do. What I’m observing now is the beginning of the problem, but I expect it will get worse in the coming years.

    I have recently been made aware that older primary school girls start wearing cycle shorts or other lightweight shorts under the dresses to limit the knicker-exposure, but I can’t help but feeling sad about it. Suddenly here we go, telling the girls they should be putting more constraints on their physicality than boys, in the name of, I don’t know – false modesty? The boys have an option to choose shorts over long trousers in the summer, but I’m yet to see shorts for girls available in the shop as an option or endorsed by mainstream schools. (it’s quite possible they exist out there but they’re certainly not on the uniform lists in any of the surrounding schools or in the typical shops. Internet search brings up skorts ( shorts disguised to look like a skirt) but that still fails to address the fundamental double standard when it comes to selection of girls uniform clothes.

    I’d be happiest seeing some sort of unisex tracksuit or jeans based clothes that strengthen the sense that what counts at school is what you do and not whether you’re a boy or a girl. “Genderfying” the uniform promotes separation between girls at boys, at the age where surely that shouldn’t matter yet? I personally don’t see the reason for dressing kids ‘smart’ for school – we don’t expect them to look smart for any other activity they do, why school? Where they are frequently expected to sit on the floor cross legged and take part in physical activities! I think those choices reflect our own expectations of a “serious work environment” but are hardly child centric?
    And to be clear, I am pro uniforms – I’d just like them to keep up with the times. When I see 5 year olds heading to a local private school wearing straw boaters, I feel like ringing the school to remind them that the victorian era ended over 100 years ago, which surely is enough time to find some alternatives. The rest of the world has…

    1. I am really liking your idea of track-suit style uniform. My only reservation is that it could look a little androgynous. I don’t want to see feminine or masculine styling being lost in the name of political correctness. Some kind of tracksuit that is styled for each gender would be ideal.

      it’s true, why are we forcing kids into the formal world of work from such a young age? They do get dirty and mucky and school uniform is impractical for physical activity (or girls uniform is anyway). CLothes that encouraged this kind of play in girls and boys should be encouraged.

  9. Hi John,

    Hi John,

    I’ve just read your blog on uniform and wanted to share my views as a mum of three (2 daughters, 1 son aged 7, 3,2) I agree with you that uniform is indeed a good idea as you say it is inclusive regardless of background all children look the same. It also helps me as a busy working mum and my daughter prepare for school each day already knowing what she will wear.
    I do disagree that uniform reinforces femininity or a trial insisting girls wear trousers. My daughter chooses to wear a skirt and in the summer a summer dress. If I told her she had to wear trousers I know this would really upset her, as her choice of outfit, in or out of school will always be a skirt/dress, she has never liked wearing trousers.
    Most uniform providers now offer girls the choice of, pinafores, skirts, trousers or the best of both, culottes. Most schools in my area (Sussex) are very inclusive and allow girls the freedom to tailor the schools uniform to their personal taste.
    My daughter loves a summer dress as she finds this most comfortable and also importantly keeps her cool. Like your little girl she also adores gymnastic practise. We get around the issue of the skirt by wearing a pair of cotton cycling shorts underneath.

    1. As it happens, I’m not proposing girls are ‘forced’ to wear trousers. I am second guessing that in many schools, girls don’t wear trousers because only a tiny percentage of girls do. it’s not seen as cool or acceptable and this social pressure limits girls’ choices.

      The beauty of leggings is they can be teamed with dresses, skirts etc or worn on their own so the girls can retain feminine styling, but join in with physical play as much as they wish. I sense we may not be in agreement on this issue, but girls uniform, in my opinion, is limiting and help reinforce the idea that girls are not into physical play. As a dd of two daughters, I think that is the wrong message to send to young girls.

  10. Thanks John. Interesting post. I have three daughters, one of whom wouldn’t be seen dead in a skirt, another that loves them and the third isn’t really that bothered.

    I would argue that limiting girls to ‘just’ trousers or leggings is restricting to those who prefer to express themselves in a more feminine style. Why not simply offer a choice? Surely this can be achieved in a way that retains the benefits of a uniform?

    I don’t think a gender neutral dress code has to become androgynous if it retains elements of choice. And, if boys choose to wear a skirt or dress that should be permissible to them too.

    1. You raise an interesting point. If girls are going ot get more choice, you kinda have to extend it to boys also. That said, my primary concern is ensuring the kids are dressed practically, in a way that isn’t limiting to them. I think girls’ uniform falls short on this point. Totally agree with you ‘though, it doesn’t have to be androgynous. Some feminine / masculine styling can be retained so it appeals ot boys and girls alike.

  11. So pleased the law has been passed that girls can wear trousers and boys skirts. So important they are free to wear what they feel is comfortable and suits their identity.

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  13. Boo hoo you girls have got it tough,you can wear a dress ,skirt ,trousers ,what can we boys wear trousers ,and if we are lucky shorts ,I’m all for boys to wear skirts ,after all if girls can then so should boys ,although I’m not sure how many would wear a skirt ,I wish I had the choice when I was a school boy.

    1. There’s been a lot of talk about how boys have a greater choice than girls. I would throw down the challenge (as you have clearly picked up on) is than really true?

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  16. I think smart school uniforms are a good thing, including a requirement for girls to wear skirts. Our daughters (12 and 14) go to a private, mixed school where the children wear shirts with collars, blazers, trousers (for boys) and skirts (for girls). To me, the school’s job is to prepare pupils for adult life, which includes looking smart and professional. And whether we like it or not, women look smarter in skirts, and there are still situations and roles where it’s better to wear skirts than trousers.

    1. “Whether we like it or not, women look smarter in skirts”. That’s one enormous, sweeping statement and not the kind of thing I would say in front of any woman. I really didn’t know what to think when I read that!

      To me, parents are there to prepare their children for later life in partnership with schools. Putting children in uniform that stymies active play is simply daft.

      I would also love to know exactly what situations exist where it’s better to wear skirts than trousers? Working as part of a paramedic team? In the military? Doing a fun run? It seems trousers are good enough for the Prime Minister.

  17. My daughter can wear trousers, but she chooses to wear her summer dress as she prefers it (she’s only 5). She wears some black cycling shorts underneath (she just started doing this by herself one day) and plays away. Her school actually encouraged us to send them in black joggers or black comfy trousers when in reception as they said skirts are so restricting for the girls in the playground and on the climbing frames. They were even happy for black pumps/trainers instead of school shoes so they could play freely 🙂 I know all schools aren’t that relaxed and many, like the ones I went to, were rather strict. The school my daughter is at is outstanding, so they are doing something right, even with relaxed uniform rules 🙂

    1. Oh wow, it does sound like you daughter’s school has quite a pioneering approach. I approve, it’s the way schools should be.

  18. I have found it’s not just uniform age. Dressing my pre 2 year old.
    It’s trousers and leggings but…..she looks cute in a dress.
    She had a dress on when we went to Buxton last week amd she still wears the grazed knees to prove it.
    So it’s also a parent problem. We can’t help but pass on the gendercentric clothing ideas.
    How do you get out of the idea that a dress is cute and trousers are practical boy wear?

    1. Interesting. . . my wife has the mindset that trousers are boy wear and doesn’t like it when my eldest wears them to school. Me, I encourage it. They’re far more practical for that environment. At the same time, however, my daughtters, bioth of them, love dresses. there is a balance to be found I think.

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