“When I was at school, a Muslim student was asked to remove their headscarf because it was 'causing a stir'.”
“At my current school, students aren’t allowed to have a buzz cut. Why?”
“When I was at school, we were told to adjust our skirt lengths because they were distracting the male teachers.”
How far do you recognise the above statements from your students' experiences – and, indeed, your own?
School uniform is a hugely divisive issue and always has been. Indeed, only this week the Department for Education told schools in statutory guidance that they had to keep uniform costs down and offer second-hand uniforms and environmentally friendly options. It's a move that's been welcomed by many, while others would say that this guidance doesn't go far enough.
By its very nature, school uniform is prescriptive: everyone has to wear a certain colour tie, a particular blazer, a particular style of shoe.
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But at what point does this go too far? When a uniform policy leads to students feeling distressed, or discriminated against, should that be acceptable?
No, says Alison Wiggins, the subject lead for the PGCE social science and psychology courses at UCL Institute of Education. Wiggins is also the chair of the university’s inclusion group. She’s been working with the training provider School of Sexuality Education to produce new guidance for schools around truly inclusive uniform policies. The statements at the start of this article were recorded in workshops with trainee teachers as part of this work, and show just how much there is to unpick around uniform policy and inclusion.
Everyone's Invited: the ripple effect
Wiggins says that she and her colleagues first recognised a gap in the market for guidance around inclusive school uniform policies earlier this year, when the shockwaves caused by the Everyone’s Invited website (through which pupils shared their personal experiences of sexual harassment in school) were rippling through schools.
“We were getting feedback from teachers and students that the issue of uniform was closely connected to some of the practices and ethos around sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools,” Wiggins explains.
“Often boys are harassing girls in a way that is sexual; it can be to do with the length of their skirt. There’s a lot of upskirting, and girls often wear shorts underneath their skirts. And when a girl does report being sexually harassed, she's told off because she's got this short skirt on or because she'd done something to modify her uniform that somehow attracted that unwanted attention.
“So often the girls’ complaints are not necessarily taken seriously, and they accept it as a matter of course, they accept being treated like that as normal. It’s not normal and it’s absolutely not OK.”
Wiggins says that in the workshops, discussion around students wearing non-uniform in sixth form also revealed instances in which girls' clothing was policed: they were told to not have their shoulders out, to not expose their midriffs, for example.
“This issue isn't being dealt with properly, and it’s being exacerbated by not just the policies themselves, but the way that the policies are being enforced,” says Wiggins. “We heard stories about teachers telling girls they can’t complain, and that it's their own fault because they were wearing long socks or they looked too sexy. This language is really unhelpful and it needs to be addressed.”
Uniform policies aren't only problematic for girls, however. They can also unintentionally discriminate against young people on the basis of their race, religion, whether or not they have special educational needs or disability (SEND), their level of socioeconomic disadvantage or their body type, says Wiggins. Even those who are keen to protect the environment can find uniform policies are at odds with their beliefs.
“Rules around haircuts came up a lot, particularly with black boys,” says Wiggins. “For a lot of them, [they told us] they prefer to have it as a faded cut, but in many schools that’s against the uniform policy. Why? We couldn’t find a single reason why.”
Boys are also often prohibited from having long hair, Wiggins continues. And facial hair was another thing that boys reported being shamed about, with some recounting having been told by members of staff to get rid of facial hair on the spot.
“There were also lots of rules around braids, dreadlocks and headscarves, with no legitimate reason why,” says Wiggins.
Other issues that arose were around the material of uniforms worn by students with SEND. One parent told Wiggins that her nephew has sensory issues, and didn’t like the feel of a certain fabric on his skin. His parents asked if the uniform could be in a different fabric and were told no.
There were also stories of policies that made leather shoes mandatory – which caused distress both for the students who were against the use of leather for the sake of the environment, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose families were unable to afford real leather.
Uniform policies, stresses Wiggins, must be fit for purpose and tailored to the individual characteristics of all students, rather than treating them as one homogenous group. Inclusivity and equality, she says, must be at the heart of every uniform policy.
But, actually, if school uniforms are so unsuited to diverse characteristics of the student body, should we have them at all?
The opinions were divided in the workshops, says Wiggins. Those who came from schools without uniforms still reported policing of clothing; there were rules against wearing tracksuits and trainers, for example. And despite the costs of some uniforms, others argued that actually, for children from a disadvantaged background, it was cheaper than having different clothes to wear every day.
Ultimately, Wiggins says that the benefits of a uniform can outweigh the negatives, if it is inclusive.
“I agree with uniform but I do believe that uniforms can and should be made more inclusive and the comfort of the students to be themselves has to be at the core of that,” she explains. “We shouldn't have rules for rules' sake or because other schools have rules that are similar. Rules need to be fit for purpose and should never discriminate against groups of students.”
How to create an inclusive school uniform policy
So, how should a school leader go about introducing a truly inclusive school uniform policy? The guidance produced by UCL and the School of Sexuality Education has some suggestions.
1. Community consultation and student voice
Leaders should consult students, parents and carers when reviewing or designing a uniform policy, says Wiggins. The process should allow people to submit feedback or ideas anonymously, and it’s important that a representative sample of the school community has been consulted.
Wiggins says that the policy needs to be reviewed every year or every other year to ensure they reflect the needs of the community. The policy itself should set out the new date and process.
2. Centre student wellbeing
Student wellbeing must be at the centre of any school uniform policy, says Wiggins, so instead of having it as part of the discipline and behaviour policy, why not move it across to sit with the student wellbeing policies?
If uniform is enforced, it should be done as a conversation rather than a sanction, and ultimately uniform should be practical, says Wiggins.
“Some schools have obsessions about very small things, like a child having to ask to remove their blazer when it’s hot – why are those rules in place? It’s ludicrous. Students have the right to be comfortable,” she says. “Some of the fabrics are really artificial and therefore aren’t breathable. People told us that students don’t feel like they can play and run around because they get too sweaty.”
As well as physical comfort and practicality, schools should consider the emotional wellbeing of the student body, particularly when it comes to emerging and changing identities, says Wiggins.
“A lot of issues were raised about girls not wanting to wear trousers, or boys feeling uncomfortable in trousers that didn't fit them properly,” she says. "There’s often a lack of flexibility in policies. The importance of students feeling comfortable should come above everything else.”
Critically, enforcement of uniform should never cause harm to students, or hinder their learning – schools should not be sending students home if they are “breaking uniform rules”, says Wiggins.
3. Provide training for staff on how uniform should be enacted
The guidance says that approaches to uniform need to be consistent across the school, and teachers need to be aware of any agreements about modification.
Wiggins gives the example of a boy she taught who had alopecia. It was agreed that he could wear a hat as part of his uniform – but not every member of staff was aware of, or believed in, this allowance.
“Every day someone told him off for having that hat on, and told him to take it off. Even when he would protest and say, ‘But Miss, you know I’m allowed to wear this’, some would say ‘fine’, and some would say ‘no’. It was really difficult, and it’s horrible to imagine that there are a lot of kids who experience that but don't ever say anything about it,” she says.
Training for staff on uniforms, therefore, is absolutely critical, and the guide says that training should include:
- A clear overview of what the uniform policy is.
- An understanding of equality and diversity, and how this might relate to uniform, eg, that students may choose to express themselves in different ways and wear certain clothes owing to their faith, family background or culture.
- How uniform interlinks with sexual violence, eg, through perpetuating myths about links between dress and sexual assault.
- What to do if they are uncertain.
- Prioritising learning over uniform enforcement.
- The difference between policing uniform and policing bodies.
- Pupil premium and what support is available for disadvantaged students around uniform.
- Reflection on unconscious biases in relation to practices around uniform.
- Guidance around use of language that does not shame or blame, and centres around student wellbeing.
You can access the full guidance produced by UCL and the School of Sexuality Education here