How schools can adopt a gender-neutral uniform policy

What is a gender-neutral uniform, and why do we need one? Tes talks to school leaders who have introduced unisex uniforms
22nd July 2021, 12:11pm


How schools can adopt a gender-neutral uniform policy
How A School Can Adopt A Gender-neutral School Uniform

Historically school uniforms have usually always been split along gender lines: trousers and shorts for boys, skirts and pinafores for girls.

But over the past few years there has been a growing campaign to raise awareness that not only are boys’ uniforms often more “play-friendly” than girls’, but the cost difference between the two uniforms is also significant.

These issues are just some of the concerns raised by the campaign group Let Clothes be Clothes, run by activist Francesca Mallen, which is calling for an end to stereotyping in children’s clothing and for schools to adopt gender-neutral uniforms that ensure everyone has the same choices - and pays the same amount.

”[Schools should] provide a selection of smart and practical clothing options for all children, and remove terms such as ‘boys’ clothes’ and ‘girls’ clothes’,” she says.

“This enables children to choose the types of clothing they feel most comfortable in, and the most appropriate for how they want to dress.”

School uniform ‘should be gender-neutral’

It’s clear there are issues here that need discussing. For example, Let Clothes Be Clothes recently produced a report on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE) entitled Dressing Girls to Fail, which underlined just how lopsided prices for uniforms for girls and boys can be. 

As just one example, the report cites a situation where an inner-city secondary school in the West Midlands allowed boys to wear generic white shirts that have an average cost of £3.94 while the girls’ uniform specified a pink blouse, available from the named uniform supplier at around £14 each.

Is having a school uniform a problem?

Such complaints about uniforms are not new and, for some, these sorts of costs strengthen the argument that a uniform itself is outdated and should be done away with - just as it has been in most schools in the USA.

However, Mallen doesn’t agree. “Uniform has lots of benefits, and there are lots of good reasons to have a uniform,” she says.

What matters more, though, is that parents and pupils have a choice and are informed in the creation of uniform policies.  “Uniform choices need to be decided after collaboration with stakeholders, not dictated to parents and children,” says Mallen.

This is why Let Clothes Be Clothes does not advocate doing away with uniform but instead calls for schools to adopt unisex clothing policies so as not to put girls, or their parents, at a disadvantage - even producing a template letter for parents to raise this issue with their school.

What does the guidance say?

Many schools may be amenable to this idea - but may also be unsure of what the law says and what rules they need to adhere to.

This is where clearer guidance may be helpful. For example, in Wales, after the release of a report called Charter for Change, the government moved to update uniform policy to state the following: “Schools’ uniform policies should not dictate different items of clothing on the basis of sex/gender.”

However, for schools in England no similar guidance has been released, despite the issue being discussed in Parliament when Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran raised a bill calling for gender-neutral uniforms in schools in 2019.

The lack of guidance around uniform rules in schools seems to be at odds with the laws that do exist for adults in the workplace. The equalities dress code guidance states: “It is best to avoid gender-specific prescriptive requirements; for example, the requirement to wear high heels. Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful.”

Mallen questions why this cannot be applied to schools and school uniforms.

“The guidance for Discrimination in the Workplace specifically gives the example of requiring women to wear skirts as ‘unlawful practice’. So why are schools exempt from these rules?” she asks. 

What can schools do?

Nonetheless, even without guidance, the Let Clothes be Clothes report cites examples of schools that have made the move to create a gender-neutral policy for uniform, showing it can be done.

So if you’re a school with a separate boys’ and girls’ uniform, what might a change to a gender-neutral uniform policy look like? Mallen says it isn’t just about getting rid of any “gendered” items and proclaiming “job done” - instead it should be seen in terms of removing barriers and creating an equitable offering.

“Gender-neutral is sometimes misunderstood to mean a ban of skirts or dresses - this isn’t the case at all,” she says. “It’s about not prescribing what girls or boys wear and allowing free choice.”

So if you’re thinking about making the move to a gender-neutral uniform offering, what do you need to think about?

We spoke to two schools with a gender-neutral uniform policy to find out how they made the switch.

1. Price things up

Dan Morrow is CEO and trust leader for Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust. He says the cost to parents of uniforms was a big motivation for moving to a genderless uniform policy and should be a priority when making decisions about uniforms.

“Our decision to offer a gender-neutral uniform was in order to decrease costs for families,” he explains.

“It makes it easier for them to get replacements and being able to recycle and reuse. We also wanted to reduce ‘badging’ so that uniform choices are as generic as possible so that we are not dependent on bespoke suppliers but allow a range.”

Daniel Woodrow, headteacher of St Gregory CEVC Primary School in Sudbury, Suffolk, agrees that it is really important to consider the total cost for families at different pinch points in the academic year.

“I’m not a fan of supplier-only uniforms,” he says. 

“I do feel sorry for parents having to spend absurd amounts on supplier-only school uniforms at this time of year, especially Year 6 parents getting their children fully kitted out for secondary school.”

2. Include parents in the decision

As a school, you are asking parents to buy and dress their children in your choice of clothing, so it is necessary to bring them in on the discussions about what that uniform looks like.

Morrow says this can’t be a one-off activity - it needs to be an ongoing conversation.

“We use a range of surveys and focus groups as well as triangulating through governance arrangements,” he explains. “There has been both strong support and challenge for our positions, which are leading to better decisions for all.”

Rather than the school telling their parents what is happening, Morrow suggests that it should be the parents telling the school about their experience.

“The key to success is to approach this first as a listening exercise,” says Morrow. “This is why we do have a long consultation process in place for this discussion - we cannot assume our views are right.”

If you’re worried parents will resist breaking with tradition, Woodrow says you might be surprised.

“Primary uniform has been gender-neutral for as long as I can remember, going back to when I was a pupil in the ‘80s,” he adds.

3. Don’t lose sight of the purpose of uniform

There is a risk that in designing a prescriptive uniform policy, the point of uniform can be lost in the detail about the colour of the socks or the shade that shoes need to be.

Morrow says to prevent this from happening it is important not to lose focus on a uniform’s original purpose.

“Uniform is not a driver of control nor conformity; it is primarily there to act as a leveller so that economic advantage does not present and add pressure to those who may be disadvantaged or financially disenfranchised,” he says.

As such, Morrow believes schools need to allow choices to be made by individual families to suit their views and circumstances.

“Your uniform policy must ensure that the wide range of protected characteristics can be met without it being seen as a departure from expectations,” he says.

Some people argue there is no point switching to gender-neutral as the girls will always wear dresses anyway. But Woodrow says this isn’t the case.

“At our school, we’ve always had it so girls and boys can pick what they want,” he explains. “Quite a few wear trousers, very few wear shorts. The ones who do wear shorts tend to wear them all year round, regardless of the weather”

Could it be done in international schools?

It’s easy to see from all of the above that the move to making gender-neutral uniforms can be done - with the right planning and preparation.

What about in international schools, though? Can it be done in schools where cultures mix and mingle and local laws, customs and traditions have to be taken into consideration?

Chris Barnes, an experienced school leader who has spent his career in international schools and currently works in Malaysia, says it would be a tough ask because of how strong cultural views are around gender.

“The three main ethnic groups [at our school] all co-exist peacefully but have defined views about the roles of male and female. The society as a whole remains patriarchal and language used to discuss and describe relationships is traditional,” he says

“The notion of gender neutrality in uniform, on top of the cultural shift to greater personal development and independence in learning, would be a distraction and potentially problematic unless the society as a whole moved to something like this. It would be a talking point about the school for all of the wrong reasons.”

A leader in the Middle East also thinks that the idea of gender-neutral uniform would cause consternation and become problematic 

“Schools are heavily restricted by staunchly conservative government regulation or regulatory bodies - it might not be prohibited to offer a gender-neutral uniform, but the parental backlash and subsequent investigations as a result of this backlash would make it impossible to put into place in the first place.”

Perhaps it will be a while yet, then, before international schools attempt to move to a gender-neutral uniform policy. 

But in England it seems the work of campaign groups like Let Clothes be Clothes and the growing number of schools willing to create gender-neutral uniform policies suggest that perhaps the age-old skirts or shorts offering for girls and boys could become a thing of the past - even if it doesn’t happen overnight.

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