What makes appropriate school dress?

Picture of Chris Whitehead, a boy wearing a skirt, next to his school signSchool skirt ban is just the latest battle in the uniform wars | Education | The Guardian

Recently a secondary school in Ipswich (the third in the town) changed its uniform code making trousers compulsory for all pupils, boys and girls. This is because girls had been appearing in ever-shorter skirts, leading to teachers having to send some girls home and wasting a lot of time that could have been spent on other things. The justification when the first school changed the rules (Kesgrave High) was that girls were cycling to school in very short skirts, and the headteacher was quoted as saying that they do not want girls having a “come-hither look”. While bans have not happened across the country, over the last 20 years trousers have become acceptable dress for girls in schools where there are uniforms, and in 2005 girls’ school trousers outsold skirts at Woolworths for the first time. (In 2002, only 2% of girls’ “bottoms” sold by Woolworths were trousers.) Needless to say, the same measure cannot be used for the popularity of skirts or trousers this year.

The article also features a teacher’s view, which favours abolishing uniforms altogether. It is difficult for male teachers to reprimand girls for wearing inappropriate clothes, often leading to retorts that they “shouldn’t be looking” and being called perverts. Requiring girls to wear trousers “blurs gender”, he says, causing embarrassment for girls with no bust, and encourages “ladette culture”:

One of the benefits of co-education is the opportunity for the genders to learn from each other, for boorish thugs to feminise, for eyelash-flutterers to masculate. I saw no skirt-wearers kicking in shop windows this summer.

The subject interests me because I am firmly on the side of abolition, with some dress code implemented to make sure pupils attend in clothing which is at least appropriate. Many of the arguments in favour are easily countered; the argument that it masks social inequality, for example, is proven to be a lie when children can find out where others live, or gauge their class by the way they talk. Some argue that it instils pride or a school identity, but what is there to be proud of? Children have to go to school (except for those who are home-schooled or too ill, and neither of those are the children’s choice) and there are only so many schools and they have to go to one of them. They might not want their school to be part of their identity either — they may already have a family or a religious community for that. Workplaces have uniforms, usually for public-facing workers so that they can be easily identified; there is no reason for the same to apply to a school. Being identifable to pupils of other schools might actually be dangerous.

The article also refers to a boy who wore a skirt to school earlier this year in protest against the schools’ refusal to allow boys to wear shorts, while they allowed girls to wear knee-length skirts in the summer months, seen as discrimination because girls had a more comfortable option in the heat. This is not the first time someone has done this — a boy wore a skirt to school in 2006 for similar reasons — and in both cases the school did not object but, to my knowledge, did not change the rules. Personally, I do not find long trousers particularly uncomfortable in terms of heat (I wear them every day and have done for years); what I did find dreadfully uncomfortable were top buttons and ties, and it caused one run-in with teachers and prefects after another. I am still reluctant to wear them, regardless of the occasion. I know they are associated with power to some people, but to me it is quite the opposite and that sort of power has always been rather remote from my perspective in any case.

As for the issue of short skirts, surely they could avoid this problem by allowing girls to wear either long skirts or long trousers, like the boys, and if a girl chooses to wear a skirt and turns up in one that is too short, she gets given a pair of trousers to wear. This way, there is no perception of discrimination and if some girls see wearing a skirt as essential to distinguishing them as girls, they can (although some parents may also see skirts as proper school clothes, even if the school offers a choice), and boys might not decide to wear skirts whether for comfort or as a protest (although I don’t think there is any harm in it, particularly for junior boys — they would look much more out of place on a boy who was physically adult).

However, I believe schools are allowed too much leeway with uniforms; there are still state schools which require pupils (or rather, their parents) to purchase expensive bespoke uniforms such as kilt-type skirts with a particular pattern for girls and blazers for both sexes (Catholic schools seem to be the worst offenders here). State schools are meant to be a public service and should not require additional expense as they are already paid for out of the public purse. I should add that in some developing countries which are former British colonies, school uniforms are required in state schools which results in some children being unable to attend as their parents cannot afford it; a particularly harmful colonial legacy. There should at most be a requirement for appropriate clothing, so as to take into account religious requirements, some children’s physical sensitivities and to make sure the clothing is not uncomfortable, ridiculous or demeaning. After all, if outlandish clothing can be a distraction from the school’s learning purpose, the same can be said for struggles with uncomfortable clothes and jobsworth teachers who insist on defending it.

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  • Ify

    I’d rather not be forced into wearing a school uniform, currently while finishing up my clinical rotations for my nursing degree we are forced into white uniforms and when I worked for TSA we wore uniforms. While I’m a big proponent of free speech and choice, wearing uniforms does seem to build a sense of cohesiveness amongst those wearing them.

  • I don’t have any objection to uniforms for staff in public facing roles - nurses have always worn uniforms, although that’s mostly because historically nurses were nuns. Also, there are some jobs where you wouldn’t want to wear your own clothes as they would get dirty. None of this applies to school pupils. Also, they might not want to be associated with the other kids, possibly for very good reasons (I know I didn’t).

  • M Risbrook

    Is there even a question regarding school uniforms for Islamic schools? The school uniform argument is generally confined to non-Islamic schools. I suppose theoretically if a secular state school has around 90% of its students Muslim then the governors could enforce traditional Islamic dress as school uniform for all students including those who are not Muslim.

  • The simple answer is that some Muslim schools have uniforms and others don’t. Depending on what sort of schools they are — if they are a religious academy, they are more likely to resemble classical Islamic dress such as shalwar-kameez or a long white robe. If they are a secular school run by Muslims for Muslims, it’s more likely to resemble a western school uniform with some modifications. A school could impose Islamic dress on everybody, but it would not be very popular and so it wouldn’t happen, at least not in the UK unless it was a private Islamic school and a non-Muslim parent, for some reason, chose to send their child there.

  • George Carty

    Why do you think skirts were largely replaced by trousers for schoolgirls during the course of the Noughties? If girls were wearing very short skirts (or rolling them up) then perhaps parents launched a pre-emptive strike by putting them in trousers instead…

  • Girls always had been wearing short skirts or rolling them up — my Mum said she did that when she was at school in the 60s. What’s changed is probably that trousers have become standard wear for adult women (and increasingly, young girls) so they didn’t see why they should wear skirts when, in almost any other environment, many of them never do and their adult female relations usually wear trousers. Also, it’s nigh-on impossible to get school skirts now that are longer than knee-length for school, unless your school demands an expensive bespoke one. Not all girls like to have bare legs, especially in winter, hence the trousers.