Girls in skirts and boys in trousers. This has been the strictly gendered story of school uniform since long before the days of Tom Brown putting on a top hat and tails to learn his times tables or the girls of Hamlet of Radcliff school pitching up in starched aprons with gloves (seriously). Now the rules appear to be relaxing, as 80 state schools across the UK, including 40 primaries, have introduced gender-neutral policies allowing girls to wear trousers (which, beyond the school gate, many of us have been doing for at least a century) and boys to wear skirts.
“We introduced the policy more than a year ago,” Paula Weaver, headteacher at Allens Croft primary school in Birmingham, tells me. The school is thought to be the first state primary in the country to make their uniform policy explicitly gender-neutral, changing the wording and linking in staff, governors and parents.
In practice, what does this mean? “That children are expected to wear uniform, but they can wear whatever part of that uniform they want,” is her no-nonsense answer.
For other schools it’s about removing references to a pupil’s gender in uniform dress codes. “This year we’ve gone from a girls’ uniform and a boys’ uniform to a skirt uniform and a trousers uniform,” explains Liana Richards, deputy head teacher at Uplands Community College, a state secondary in East Sussex. “It’s about recognising the rights of students who feel they might not fit into the binary genders. It’s less of a big deal to the students than you might think. We haven’t seen that much difference yet, although some girls have made the conscious decision to wear the trousers uniform, which has to be worn with a tie.”
The move is part of a government-funded drive to support LGBT+ children in schools and be more open to children questioning their gender or sexual identity. It follows the decision in January by the 170-year-old private school Brighton College to scrap uniform rules for trans pupils. Research by Educate and Celebrate, a charity giving LGBT+ inclusive training to school staff, found that 53% of schools don’t teach about LGBT+ relationships and 49% don’t teach the definitions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans+.
Allens Croft and Uplands Community College are two of a number of primaries and secondaries designated a “best practice school” by Educate and Celebrate for, among other things, its gender-neutral uniform policy. “It’s in line with the ethos of our school,” Weaver explains. “It ties in with our equality work around homophobic and transphobic bullying and eradicating the negative use of the word ‘gay’. We believe that children have the right to express their own identity in a way that is most comfortable for them.”
Has there been any backlash from parents? “None at all,” she insists. “The thing is, we’re not insisting on anyone doing anything. It’s not about influencing children. It’s about giving them choice.”
What about the pupils? Are they turning up in every uniform combination under the sun? Apparently not. “We still have the battle with children who don’t wear uniform,” she notes. “We still have more trouser-wearing across the board than boys wearing skirts. But that’s about what’s seen as acceptable in society and you know what? We need to work on that, too.”