Since at least 2004, when a school just outside Ipswich implemented the policy, some uniform regulations have stated that every pupil, regardless of gender, wears the same. In 2018, around 40 of the 24,372 schools in England have a gender-neutral uniform. In the majority of cases, this involves female pupils wearing trousers, although at least one school I have personally visited (which has religious origins) has the male students in long skirts.
When news broke that Priory School in Lewes had taken the decision to introduce trousers for all pupils, however, it unfortunately coincided with not only a 30C heatwave but also the mainstream media’s continued insistence on trying to blame everything on the "transgender lobby". So it was that the tabloids had a proverbial field day last week, bollocking on about how a tiny percentage of transgender young people were depriving the rest of us of our "freedom of choice".
Whilst I wouldn’t support a country-wide ban on any school children wearing skirts (mainly because absolutely no one is suggesting it), I see the logic in all pupils wearing the same. Uniforms, by their very nature, are an equaliser and trousers or shorts are a much more versatile and practical garment, allowing you to learn through play, frolic and generally enjoy yourself without fear of exposing your undercrackers.
Having voiced this opinion on social media, I somehow found myself taking part in a televised "debate" on Good Morning Britain, defending myself against Piers Morgan’s increasingly furious accusations that I wanted to "ban all skirts" and that it was "all tied up with feminism". This was, he claimed, "like Mao’s China" (I do worry that at some point Morgan will genuinely be having his human rights infringed and will have run out of hyperboles with which to convey the situation. Perhaps he will simply spontaneously combust). Within minutes, the "debate" had descended into a bellowing Morgan Monologue, culminating in his "hilarious" "the world’s gone mad" catchphrase.
As should be the case in debates, I could completely see the perspective of my "opponent", former deputy headteacher Ruth Kudzi, who, unlike me, was allowed to finish her sentences because her opinions supported those of Morgan. I, therefore, thought I’d take the opportunity to explore some of the arguments for and against gender-neutral uniforms here (since GMB clearly isn’t the forum in which to do so).
School uniform: the pro-skirt argument
Enforcing a trouser-or-short only uniform takes away choice from pupils, who should be able to express themselves, even if it’s within the parameters of a uniform.
Particularly in hot weather, skirts are both more comfortable and more flattering. There is evidence to show that girls, in particular, will avoid certain activities at school or even turning up altogether if they don’t like the way they look.
If gender neutrality is important, it is better to say boys should be allowed to wear skirts if they choose than to take away the option for everyone.
Concerns about upskirting or other sexual assault are indicative of problems in a school’s culture which should be taken up with the perpetrators, rather than leaders unfairly trying to curtail the freedoms of the victims.
The anti-skirt argument
As more and more time is lost in the school week for sports and physical activity, schools are having to reclaim non-lesson-assigned windows for them, meaning children often don’t have the opportunity to change into PE kit and need something practical and durable.
Where the uniform skirt falls above the knee, teachers are having to spend a lot of their time, which is already in short supply, policing the lengths of them and telling pupils to stop rolling them up.
The fact that many girls want to attend school in something that "flatters" their figure is potentially a cause for concern – we go to school to learn, not to look attractive or "feminine". It could be argued that we should be addressing, rather than pandering to, this belief system.
The purpose of uniform is, to a large extent, to erase differences in wealth and the same could apply to gender. If everyone is dressed the same, it reinforces the idea that we are all equal.
There might be the welcome side-effect of better supporting transgender students, in that gender-segregated uniforms force them to live a lie by presenting in clothes that are the opposite of those associated with their gender, at least before they have begun the almighty and emotionally turbulent process of coming out and transitioning.
Different schools have different circumstances to contend with. Whether it’s a strict uniform or a loose dress code, schools should be allowed to tailor their policies to their unique needs. A country-wide uniform policy, whatever it looked like, would never cater to every school effectively.
The media furore and subsequent Twitter storm certainly drove one thing home to me: the conservative right magically become totally cool with the notion of boys wearing skirts when faced with the prospect of girls not having the option to.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.