We shouldn’t skirt the question
of what school children should
wear, says Antonia Charlesworth

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In 2023 I don’t need to talk about the multitude of reasons why girls should be allowed to wear trousers at school, do I?

We all know by now that gendered uniform policies reinforce harmful stereotypes that affect future career choices. We’re well aware that they entrench the idea girls and boys are inherently different. It’s clear to us all that they have the potential to maximise conscious and unconscious bias in teachers, encourage gender-based attitudes among children, and normalise modesty as a value system to police girls’ bodies and behaviour.

These were the findings of a 2021 government-commissioned report, School Uniform: Dressing Girls to Fail. It was conducted by campaign group Let Clothes Be Clothes and set a clear case for gender-neutral uniform polices. It also pointed to cost – families with girls and boys buy double and can’t hand down clothes. Parents of girls also buy shorts for under skirts, school socks and tights and summer dresses.

Your response to the report might have been, well, duh? The Equality Act (2010) emphasises the importance of avoiding sex discrimination and it is likely sex differentiation through school uniform breaches it. In addition the Department for Education has clear guidance on school uniform that reinforces the importance of not treating one sex favourably.

But a recent string of stories about ridiculous school uniform policies, such as at Rainford High in St Helens where girls were left humiliated by male teachers segregating them and measuring their skirts, illustrate that some schools are still hopelessly clinging on to sexist and archaic rules. My daughter’s school was one of them.

When my eldest daughter started there in 2016 I wrote a letter to the head asking the school to change its policy that girls had to wear skirts. As well as pointing out all of the above I spoke about warmth and comfort – a lack of which can distract from learning and put girls at a disadvantage to boys. And about practicality – skirts limit girls from taking part in physical activity since they are more restrictive and promote an expectation of modesty. Hindering physical exertion can have an impact on physical fitness and result in pent-up energy that could then be exerted within the classroom and interpreted aspoor behaviour.

I waited weeks, possibly months, before I heard back and the timing wasn’t lost on me when I received a brief reply in the last week of term stating that the school would not be changing the policy.

Over the years I intermittently toyed with the idea of escalating my campaign, which could have been fun, but before I knew it my eldest daughter was in her final year of primary school and had never taken me up on my offer to buy her a pair of trousers for school. It seemed serendipitous when, in July last year, parents were invited to take part in a consultation on uniform. If I could help get the policy changed before she left school then I had done my bit for the girls who come up behind her.

I submitted my letter again and also took a more direct approach. I asked my younger daughter if she wanted to wear trousers from September. She did.

When I bought her a pair of smart black trousers in the summer there was no guidance on what colour to buy, since they weren’t an option for girls at all. But in recent weeks there have been a couple of messages from school “reminding” parents that trousers should be grey, not black, “for both boys and girls”. Eventually my daughter came home and passed on a message from her teacher reiterating this. I checked the parent app and a non-gendered uniform list is now there. Seven years after I first made my request for girls to be allowed trousers then, I’m relieved that our school has finally, if quietly, made the decision to join the rest of us in 2023.

Unfortunately for me, I now have to fork out for another pair of trousers. There is another option however, and I hope it isn’t the one the school hoped for. Certainly it was my daughter’s immediate solution to her teacher’s message. The next morning, like a good little girl, she got herself dressed and came down to breakfast wearing, of course, a skirt.

Antonia Charlesworth is Big Issue North’s deputy editor

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