Highgate School, an elite co-ed school in London made headlines in May, announcing plans to introduce a ‘mix and match’ uniform policy, under which female students can wear trousers and male students are free to wear pleated skirts.
Shortly after, it was announced that around 120 schools in the UK have adopted a gender neutral uniform policy.
Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham in the UK, says the movement is “a kneejerk response to pressure from various equality groups, which has not been fully thought through”.
Nevertheless, as many schools in the UK begin to take a more openminded approach to uniforms, so too are those within the Australian education sector.
Newtown High School of the Performing Arts in Sydney, for example, changed its policy to allow students to wear any uniform, regardless of their gender, after students lobbied for the change earlier this year.
Victoria Rawlings, a lecturer in education, pedagogy and sexuality subjects at the University of Sydney, is supportive of the move.
“I think that’s a really positive move, the gendered nature of most school uniforms can make some young people feel really uncomfortable,” she says.
“For trans and gender diverse young people particularly, it can conflict with their gender identity, and it means they can experience a huge amount of distress which isn’t needed.
“When schools allow students to choose what school uniform they want to wear, it removes that aspect of stress and it allows students to still be in a school uniform, but not be in one that makes them uncomfortable.”
However Smithers, who has worked as a chartered psychologist and conducted major studies in the area of sex and gender differences, says changing school uniforms does children no favours.
“The vast majority of us are biologically male or female,” he says. “Very occasionally unusual chromosomes or atypical hormone exposure can lead to ambiguity and a person passionately wanting to become a member of the opposite sex. But it is a very difficult transition.
“The risk of allowing pupils to adopt the uniform of the opposite sex is that rebels and attentionseekers will show off by doing so, and they will be followed by copycats.
“In wearing that uniform they may find that they have to behave more and more like the opposite sex and this may lead to them becoming confused about their gender identity when there is no need,” he says.
In particular, he fears introducing the idea of gender diversity to primary school children will cause premature and unnecessary confusion.
“Sex and gender don’t really become issues until puberty.
“It does no favours to children, especially primary school children, to say, ‘why not try out being in the opposite sex, you may prefer it’.
“Making the switch in reality is so painful and difficult that it is only for the absolutely determined.
“Even secondary school pupils are rarely that sure,” he says.
Rawlings disagrees, saying there is no correlation between allowing students a choice of uniform options, and students choosing an alternate gender identity.
“Changing school uniform policy has nothing to do with choosing a gender identity. It is simply about what school uniform you are more comfortable in, and how does school uniform impact on students’ culture and behaviours,” she says.
“Being trans or gender diverse is not something that happens because of social or institutional interactions.
“Trans and gender diverse individuals emerge from all walks of life and contexts – they can be in environments where there’s absolutely no choice and they will still be trans or gender diverse.
“So we really need to recognise that just because a school is saying you can choose what uniform you want to wear, that’s not intrinsically going to raise questions about gender identity.
“The major thing here is that schools have the potential to reduce the distress felt by trans or gender diverse young people and to make their schooling more comfortable, accepting and inclusive.”
Setting gender diverse students aside for a moment, Rawlings says there is also a case for girls to be unrestricted by the practicalities of wearing skirts and dresses.
“We also know from research, that especially in primary school, girls who are required to wear dresses reduce their physical activity immensely.
“By having school uniforms that enable girls and young women to move more freely like shorts or trousers, they’re more able to participate in more active behaviours, to sit more comfortably and to not be so conscious of their bodies; those sort of things are really positive as well.”
While allowing male students to wear skirts and dresses may seem a drastic change, encouraging significant attention from the media and the general public, an alternative being discussed, is adopting gender-neutral uniforms which appear neither inherently male or female.
Smithers says this could be a more practical solution to both issues.
“There is a case for boys and girls wearing the same uniform, say a shirt and jeans,” he suggests.
“We are already moving in that direction in England with some older girls wearing very short skirts over tights so thick that they are effectively jeans.
“It is reasonable to question whether separate uniforms for boys and girls are necessary.
“They could wear the same, in which case transgender children would not have to declare themselves.”
On this point, the academics agree.
“There are some social norms that operate in youth cultures about ... what’s required in order for young people to conform to dominant understandings of gender,” Rawlings says.
“So by making it a neutral uniform that everyone wears, that kind of takes those considerations out of it, and it means that there’s no differentiated uniform that is required for either gender.
“In some ways the whole notion of gendered uniforms is really interesting, that a piece of clothing can be assigned to either boys or girls, I think is a bit of a weird thing anyway.
“By taking boys’ and girls’ uniforms out of the picture and just having ‘a school uniform’, I think that that’s a really positive move.”
Whether the terms ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ should be removed from school uniform order lists remains a topic for debate in Australia. What is unrefuted however, is that students struggling with gender identity issues must feel supported and included in their school environments.
Smithers says strong pastoral care programs are important in this.
“Uncertainties about gender identity are best tackled by a school through its pastoral care.
“Teachers should be warm, approachable and accepting so that pupils feel they can lay out their hopes and fears knowing that they would get support and sound advice.
“Teachers would then be able to refer on to a specialist practitioner if needed,” he says.
Rawlings would like to see teachers up-skilled in the area of gendered and homophobic bullying.
“A key thing that research has shown is that whole school approaches to addressing gendered violence and homophobic violence are really, really important.
“So, teachers need more resources and more training. Research has shown us that teachers don’t feel comfortable talking about things like same-sex parents, same-sex relationships or gender diversity or intervening in things like homophobia or transphobia because they often don’t know what the policy is about it, where the school stands, and if there might be repercussions from parents and the community.
“By having strong leadership around these things, for example, a school-wide policy, a system-wide policy, but also training and resources available for teachers, is really, really helpful, because it means that schools can have a cohesive and intentional response to these things.
“This makes the school culture better for everyone.”
UK Case Study
UK non-gender movement slow
By Gordon Cairns
When gender neutral school uniforms were introduced into Allen’s Croft Primary School in Birmingham in 2013 all went smoothly until the local press heard about the policy, sensationalising what the school was trying to achieve.
Many concerned parents contacted the school until head teacher Paula Weaver called a number of information evenings to calm parental fears that their sons were to be forced into skirts.
“Some parents were worried that the school was trying to teach their child how to be gay:” she recalls.
“A couple of parents meetings were called where the policy was explained. Any parent who was against the policy has since moved the pupil out of school.”
Since then, the majority of parents and children are happy with the dress code outlined on the website of the school which is based in King’s Heath, a cosmopolitan suburb five miles from Birmingham’s city centre.
The website states: “ We aim to promote each child’s right to express their gender and personality in whichever way feels right for them ... the rules for boys and girls are the same and we do not insist that they wear specific items of clothing.”
In the four years since the uniform policy was introduced; where the children have the choice to a wear grey or black skirt, leggings or trousers with a pale blue polo-shirt and blue sweatshirt or cardigan, a number have chosen to wear the uniform not traditionally ascribed to their sex.
“The highest percentage is of girls choosing to wear trousers, shorts or leggings rather than a skirt or dress,” Weaver admits.
“It’s basically what you feel comfortable in, as children can’t start to learn until they feel comfortable.”
However, there is more to the school’s policy than simply comfort, rather it is a response to modern views on gender with the aim of encouraging children to be tolerant of those who are perceived to be different from them.
Weaver believes education has a crucial role in helping to change intolerant views.
“Society is moving, it’s not straightforward male and female anymore. There are lots of children whose gender is simply not fixed so children should be given the choice of how to dress,” she says.
Allen’s Croft is not alone; at least 120 primary and secondary schools in the UK have introduced a gender neutral policy towards uniform, less than half of a percent of the total number of schools in the country.
While the zeitgeist has been shifting, the move towards non gender specific uniforms has been slow.
Seventeen years ago, Clare Hall campaigned to allow her daughter to have the choice to wear trousers to her school in Newcastle, England which almost went to court before the school backed down.
“It can be compulsory, but it can’t be discriminatory,” Hall explains regarding the current situation in English schools.
In the intervening years, she set up the pressure group ‘Trousers For All’, offering parents and carers advice on how to challenge the schools who enforce a strictly segregated school uniform policy.
In the UK, this tends to be private, selective and faith schools. However, there has been a societal shift, with campaigning group Educate and Celebrate moving to the mainstream as it receives government funding and support from the school inspectorate as it attempts to challenge the traditional notions of what a school uniform should be.
“If a boy wants to come to school in a skirt and make-up, what does it matter if he does well in his school work?” Hall asks.
This change to a more liberal approach to what children can wear to school is not supported by all.
Christian Concern, a group which campaigns for the UK to return to the Christian faith, challenges the new uniform policies spreading across the country.
Last year chief executive Andrea Williams commented on the rise of schools allowing their pupils to wear a uniform not specific to their gender.
“We are increasingly seeing boundaries being overstepped. Children at the age of five years old need to be reassured and supported if they experience feelings of confusion about their gender.
The solution is not to encourage their confusion but to affirm their identity which is God-given.
This policy will only serve to introduce unnecessary questioning and doubt to pupils who may have never otherwise experienced such feelings.”