Sexplain’s Sophie Whitehead explains the issue with school dress codes, and what needs to change.
School uniform is a long-contested topic in British education circles, so much so that it’s now become an overused classroom debate motion for the students themselves. Supporters of traditional school wear think it’s democratic, fosters a sense of school community and improves student focus during lesson time. Conversely, and in Sexplain’s view, more accurately, some argue that it creates additional expense for parents, limits self-expression and has to be policed by teachers, ultimately creating a disruption to learning. As those who spend time in schools will know, uniforms are rarely as democratic as they seem.
The gendered aspect of school uniforms is also at the centre of the debate. Uniform is problematic for non-binary, gender questioning or transitioning students who are made to exist within a system of boy/girl. The enforced binary undermines students’ rights to gender neutrality, fluidity and experimentation and therefore undermines the message of inclusivity and LGBTQ+ support which many schools ostensibly advocate.
In some schools, gender-neutral uniforms have been introduced in a bid to address some of these issues. Though well-intentioned, in practice, these policies can make the whole uniform masculine by enforcing ‘trousers for all’ type rules. Masculinity is coded as neutral whereas femininity is, well, feminine. Alternatively, some schools adopt a gender-neutral uniform policy by stating that all students can wear anything from the clothes available – i.e. ‘girls can wear trousers’. Again, though this is a well-meaning shift, in practice, social convention can mean that girls feel uncomfortable making that shift and so everything carries on as it was.
On top of these problems, we know that school uniform is inherently sexist. Even though many schools now offer trousers for girls to wear, the tightness of those trousers is routinely monitored and disciplined. If not trousers, girls are expected to wear skirts and thin blouses. The length of skirts is measured and the thinness of blouses leads to comments on bras seen through clothing and more. In some draconian cases, girls’ skirts have been blamed for distracting male peers and making male teachers feel uncomfortable. A self-evidently victim blaming suggestion. Add to that the itchy synthetic fabric of tights in the winter months and many girls are left with a choice between cold and discomfort.
One student we work with commented, “I think it’s important not to call out a girl if they’re wearing too short a skirt or too low cut a top etc in front of the whole class because that’s humiliating, one of my teachers said to a girl “your skirt is very short” and then something along the lines of it’s not covering much. I thought that was really unnecessary, could have easily been said in a more respectful and private way.”
This isolated anecdote exists in different iterations in classrooms nationwide and demonstrates the way sexism and school uniform interact. Though it’s been argued that it’s is all in favour of smartness and pseudo-professionalism, misogynistic ideas about what constitutes professional clothing are evident in school dress codes. From skirt lengths to exposed collar bones, uniform enforcement goes hand in hand with the sexualisation of young women. It’s a uniquely gendered phenomenon.
At Sexplain, the work we do seeks to counter rape culture, victim blaming, binaries and body shaming. It seems that school uniform in its current form, even with attempts at gender neutrality, undermines the messages we often share in classrooms. Though some educators have tried, it’s hard to know whether a progressive uniform policy can exist, given the legacy it would be following on from. With this in mind, for us, no uniform is the way forward. We advocate for school policies which allow all young people the freedom to dress in a way that feels right and comfortable for them. No gender rules. No skirt measuring. No sexism. No binaries.