Skirts for boys?

Are gender neutral school uniforms necessary?

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Gender-neutral uniforms: dressing up an adult crisis

When I was 11, my school sent me home with a letter about my socks - and I've kept it ever since. I had to wear special socks to tackle a skin condition on my feet, but they only came in white, and the school stipulated they must be red. So my mother went to the lengths of dyeing them exactly the right colour. The terse letter we received in response sniffily suggested that this would only be tolerated for a couple of weeks, after which I would be in breach of the rules.

I used to keep the letter as a monument to bureaucratic pomposity, but now I treasure it for another reason.

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Gender neutral is way forward

A top private school became the first to scrap its uniform policy to accommodate transgender children in January last year.

All pupils at Brighton College in East Sussex now have the option of wearing a skirt and blouse or trousers and shirt, regardless of gender, writes The Mirror.

Headteacher Richard Cairns said: "If some boys and girls are happier identifying with a different gender from that in which they were born, then my job is to make sure that we accommodate that.

"I hate the idea of anyone being in my school who is miserable because they're being asked to dress in a way they are uncomfortable with.

"Brighton College has instead decided to abolish the notion of boys' and girls' schools altogether."

The independent school, which has around 1,000 pupils, scrapped the uniform policy which had stood for 170 years.

The school, where fees are £11,780, also had the first openly gay head boy at a British public school when 17-year-old Will Emery was voted into the role by staff and pupils for the 2013/14 academic year.

A total of 80 state schools across the UK, including 40 primaries, have introduced gender-neutral policies allowing girls to wear trousers and boys to wear skirts.

“We introduced the policy more than a year ago,” Paula Weaver, headteacher at Allens Croft primary school in Birmingham, says. In June last year, the school was 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 in the UK 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.

For some parents, requiring girls to wear skirts and dresses to school is an outdated expectation that amounts to gender disadvantage and discrimination. Research in Australia shows:

"Skirts and dresses “restrict movement in real ways; wearers must negotiate how they sit, how they play, and how quickly they move. Skirt-wearing, consciously and unconsciously, imposes considerations of modesty and immodesty, in ways that trousers do not”.

Wearing a skirt can also inhibit a girl’s ability to participate in sports.

A study conducted in one Australian primary school in 2012 found that girls did significantly less exercise over a two-week period when wearing a school dress than they did when wearing shorts, writes theconversation.com.

Research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that young women do significantly less physical activity than young men.

Reasons given for this include the fear of being judged or ridiculed, and the tension between wanting to appear feminine and attractive, and the sweaty, muscular image attached to active girls.

It can be argued that making girls wear skirts and dresses plays directly into this tension and their fears.

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