What does school uniform teach our girls?
So, I have this thing about school uniform; with school shoes in particular. I don’t feel that they are an appropriate choice for children. I have two daughters at primary school and throughout their time so far, their shoes generally get trashed within a few weeks of buying them, not because they don’t care about their belongings, not because they have spent hours playing in the wild world, simply because they have been playing actively, climbing, crawling, running, jumping and skipping – nothing out of the ordinary. Our girls have narrow feet so supermarket shoes generally don’t fit, we end up at Clarks as they reliably make shoes that fit well and feel comfortable to wear. I used to be much happier about this when they were in the preschool range with rubberised bumper toes, balancing a good looking shoe with practical features to allow for active play. Then we moved on to school shoes and it all went wrong.
I have this theory about how children play, I haven’t put it to the test and it is just an idea. What if school children were to wear trainers for school instead of traditional school shoes? I suspect the issue isn’t there so much for boys as their shoes seem to be designed to be more robust and ready for action. Girls’ shoes on the other hand, tend to be ‘pretty’. They are often a lighter style with no features to protect against active play. We see the toes scuffed to the point where the sole is separating from the shoe and the light tread design swiftly loses its swirly floral pattern to become bare and slippery. Does this change the way that girls play? Do girls start modifying their activity levels to match their footwear? If children wore trainers instead, might their activity levels improve?
Then there are the dresses and skirts. My older daughter and her friends routinely wear shorts under their school clothes so that they can feel covered when they are playing and even then, we sometimes hear comments about feeling exposed when they are using the playground apparatus. Does this inhibit the way that girls interact with the play environment?
My younger daughter was told to sit like a lady in class – what is that supposed to mean? I’m sure there was nothing intended by it other than to sit smartly but maybe that would have been the better choice of language. If the issue was that my child was sitting in a way that revealed her underwear then maybe the uniform ought to be designed to avoid such exposure. Throwaway remarks like that suggest that there is an expected behaviour relating to gender which I know isn’t new and schools are making moves away from gender stereotypes in the language they use… but what are schools doing about the gender stereotypes that they’re promoting through uniform?
Wind the clock forwards a few years and we see teenage girls increasingly avoiding physical activity. A big part of this relates to feelings of self-image, feeling exposed in the PE kit that they are expected to wear (too short, too tight, too revealing, too uncomfortable), feeling judged and compared even in the changing rooms at the start and end of a lesson. Obviously media has its role to play in distorting a young person’s perception of body image but even without it, uniform is contributing significantly to those feelings of vulnerability and discomfort.
So, why are we actively promoting compliance to a cultural carry over from a bygone era? What is the real purpose of school uniform? I get the looking smart bit, the identity representation of the school, the promotion of social equity (though let’s be honest, school uniform doesn’t hide the poorer children any better than it hides the more wealthy, Lelli Kelly shoes and Smiggle bag versus supermarket specials – even very young children can make that distinction, so I’ve always found that argument a bit weak). To my mind, children should be at the heart of school policy and practice. With any decisions being made about what goes on in school, leadership should be asking; does this benefit the children? Does this help them to learn? Does this help them to be healthy (in the fullest sense, physically and mentally)? So if the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, then why make it a feature of school life? Schools have a gift of an opportunity to positively influence children and young people as they grow into young adults, what if something as simple as reviewing uniform policy could help children to grow up with greater activity levels and a less stereotypical perception of gender?