Gender-neutral uniforms: dressing up an adult crisis
When I was 11, my school sent me home with a letter about my socks – and I’ve kept it ever since. I had to wear special socks to tackle a skin condition on my feet, but they only came in white, and the school stipulated they must be red. So my mother went to the lengths of dying them exactly the right colour. The terse letter we received in response sniffily suggested that this would only be tolerated for a couple of weeks, after which I would be in breach of the rules.
I used to keep the letter as a monument to bureaucratic pomposity, but now I treasure it for another reason. It serves as a reminder that uniform should do what it says: make everything exactly the same. It deliberately reduces everyone, rich or poor, to the same level of outward appearance. It is an enforced equality. It means that high or low status expressed through clothing, brands and so on doesn’t play a role in an environment in which what counts is learning and achievement.
School dress also performs another function. It introduces children to taking pride in their appearance, but in a non-showy way. They gradually appreciate that if you dress smartly, you act in a more civil manner. The principle often gets overplayed in schools, but it is a sound one.
For these reasons school uniform is an embodiment of teacher authority in action. I visited Rugby School recently, and was struck by the most visible signifier of the ethos of the place: the extraordinarily long, black skirts, reminiscent of a Hermione Granger costume, which the girls are forced to wear. A fellow teacher, also visiting, remarked on the positive potential of such anachronistic dress, because of the constant and tiresome battle she has with the girls at her own school over their habit of rolling their skirts up too high.
From the far distant days when I was a schoolboy to now, tussles over uniform haven’t gone away. But today there is a key difference. It’s those in authority who have a problem with uniform. Hence we now learn that 80 state schools, 40 of them primaries, have introduced gender-neutral uniform policies, which permit both boys and girls to choose whether they want to wear trousers or skirts.
State comprehensives have permitted girls to wear trousers without controversy for a long time, on the basis that it is an everyday part of the outside world. The contentious part of this new development is that boys can turn up at the school gate in a skirt if they choose to. According to the Guardian, ‘the move is part of a government-funded drive to support LGBT+ children in schools and be more open to children questioning their gender or sexual identity’.
Are there really that many boys who are confused about their masculinity, especially at primary level, to justify this move? In my years of teaching, I have known only a tiny handful of students who questioned their gender. This feels more like an issue being thrust on children from above rather than one coming from the pupils themselves.
It is also asking for trouble. It is an open invitation for disruptive pupils to take advantage of an opportunity to mock the system. For those who are sincere, they are more likely to find their hopes of acceptance being dashed by teasing and, possibly, bullying from their less-enlightened peers.
Even though this issue looks like a laudable attempt at respecting children’s identity, in reality it is not in children’s interests at all. School kids need guidance, instruction, education; adults need to step up to the plate and inspire and guide them. We can’t do that anymore because adult authority feels weak, and this is most pronounced in schools. Uniforms are only a symbol of that authority, and a school that won’t dare say to a boy ‘you’re a boy’, or even dictate what he should wear, is hardly going to be able to say, ‘Shakespeare is great’.
Gender-neutral uniforms should be seen for what they are. This is an attempt to strip teachers of their authority, no matter how you dress it up.
Gareth Sturdy is a physics teacher working in London. Follow him on Twitter: @stickyphysics.
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