I’ve got a real thing about school uniform. There are many obvious reasons why I support uniform in schools; the levelling of social and financial status through the egality of the same clothes, the frantic morning decision being removed from children and therefore the stress of ‘competition’ too, and the sanctuary from ubiquitous advertising emblazoned all over ourselves and our children – we are, frequently, walking hoardings and school is a welcome break from that… at the moment.
There has been a lot of progress in the world of school uniform, and mainly in the state sector. Fleeces are allowed in many schools on cooler days, there are polo shirts in place of stifling collars and ties – and in the majority of state schools, particularly Primary, girls are allowed the option of either trousers or shorts.
I don’t think that this progress has crossed over into the Independent Sector any where near enough . We are still seeing a massive numbers of girls coming to school in clothing that restricts their experiences, leads to shaming, and will alter the way that they move for the rest of their lives.
There are very few Independent Schools which really offer a gender ‘neutral’ experience, I know that Brighton College was the first to offer not a ‘Boys” or ‘Girls” uniform, but a ‘Trouser’ or ‘Skirt’ uniform and students are allowed to commit to one or the other on a permanent basis regardless of their birth gender. But Brighton College is a wondrous combination of expensive, massively sought after, free from Government policy and situated in Brighton and Hove – a city of progressive ideology and liberal mind-set.
And it starts in Reception when children are 4. In some schools (NOT ALL – I am aware that there are exceptions and alternatives all over the country) but in some schools, many in the independent sector, girls have no choice but to wear a skirt / kilt / pinafore.
What this means is that the girls are doomed to play in a totally different way. They take fewer risks, they adapt their movements to avoid the shaming as a consequence of anyone seeing their underwear. They don’t twirl on the bars as readily, or, those who do are called out to and possibly laughed at. A teacher may try to help them preserve their modesty.
I did it this week. I saw a girl in Year 3 (aged 7 or 8) in the front row of assembly, obviously struggling with sitting still for so long. Her kilt was totally open and the entire staff facing her were worrying about her predicament. I crouch-walked over to her and whispered, “Oh, that silly kilt is wiggling, can you pull it back around?” – which she did. But when I was back in the staff row, I couldn’t bear what I had done. Her lovely little child’s innocent face was full of shame. I had put that perfectly normal and wonderful child into a place of shame because of the failings of her ridiculous clothing, and our failing in making a child wear a garment which IN NO WAY MET THEIR NEEDS.
Imagine the board meeting: “Right, today we are going to design clothing for small children to wear all day, every day. So team, what do small children do? Yes, they move a lot. So comfort is essential. And practicality. They want to explore their world and develop a strong and healthy body. Ok!, I’ve got it. Let’s give the boys these garments which follow the shape of their actual limbs and enclose the lower part of their trunk, allowing totally free and uninhibited movement in any plane – but let’s give the girls a sort of gaping wrap of material, often unsewn (kilt) and they can simply stay still and be good and not embarrass themselves by trying to do too much whilst wearing it.”
I promise you that girls learn at a very young age, that they must release an arm on the bars to hold their skirt up or down. You don’t do so well on the park bars with one arm. They won’t do the cartwheel they want to do because they have the wrong clothes on. They remind each other. They restrict themselves to meet the social expectations of the adults who have put them in the inadequate uniform in the first place.
So, while it’s excellent that the boys of Isca Academy School in Exeter are protesting over their lack of right to a cooler summer uniform by wearing skirts themselves, the real protest should be a push for all children, regardless of gender, to have the same opportunities to play freely, to climb, tumble, roll and spin, to sit how they darn well like, away from shaming or the need to ‘hide’ themselves from the adult world.