School should be a place where children feel comfortable. It should be a place where no matter their gender identity, they feel accepted and equal, not stigmatised by outdated gender norms, imposed by uniform policy. But for too many pupils, this is not the case. That’s why, to mark International Women’s Day, I’m presenting a Bill on Wednesday to the House of Commons which would require school uniform policies to be gender neutral.
Now, let’s be clear; I don’t think the answer is to mandate that every pupil wear trousers. What we should actually be striving for is more choice for pupils. Children should be supported and encouraged to express their individualism, as well as to feel comfortable and confident in what they wear to school.
The idea for this campaign came from then-15-year-old Lib Dem member Jess Insall, who gave an inspiring speech to our conference in March 2018. Jess had wanted to play football at break at school, but was told she was not allowed to switch her skirt for trousers, clearly impeding on her ability to play to her full potential. In her conference speech, Jess expressed her anger that girls are often forced to wear “impractical and sexualised uniforms”, and that forcing girls to wear skirts shows that boys have more freedom to run about – teaching girls to take inequality for granted and accept it as the norm.
So for me, this is fundamentally a feminist issue. Surely we should liberate girls from wearing skirts if they restrict their ability to take part in sports and activities? Janet Daulby, who campaigns on Twitter against gender stereotyping has it spot on when she argues “boys have got fewer rules to break than girls because there are no sexual messages about boys’ uniforms. There are never any stipulations about how short a boy’s shorts can be. But if we create rules about skirt lengths, those rules then exist to be broken by girls”.
But this also goes further than that. Making school uniforms gender neutral also ensures that children don’t feel pigeonholed into gender stereotypes. It is so important that transgender and non-binary pupils feel they can dress appropriately for their gender identity. It’s clearly a sensitive and emotional thing, for children who are considering transitioning to immediately have to change uniform, and it’s a stigma which could easily be avoided. I and the Liberal Democrats demand better – we believe we should let pupils take ownership of their choices.
And this is not a radical opinion. In fact, a move towards gender neutral school uniforms was the most popular option in a survey on school uniforms carried out by YouGov Omnibus. Forty percent of adults favoured the move, with just 9% of those asked backing the ‘traditional’ school uniform policy of boys in trousers and girls in skirts. Retailers are also beginning to come on board with the campaign – John Lewis announced in 2017 that it would be removing ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ labels from its children’s clothing in order to combat stereotyping and offer more choice.
The move is also backed by various campaign groups, including TrousersForAll and Girls Uniform Agenda, as well as figures such as Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox, who has recently said she would have loved to have worn trousers at school but was not given the choice. This is something I hear much too often, and something which can be easily corrected.
And it is such a simple thing to do. In fact, the Government could do it tomorrow. If they need help, they should look to the Welsh Government, and to my Liberal Democrat colleague, Welsh education secretary Kirsty Williams. She has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, resulting in Welsh governmental guidance being issued to schools, stating that uniform should not be based on gender and encouraging flexibility in what pupils can choose to wear. This move has been widely praised, particularly by the transgender community in Wales, who argue that this guidance has been needed for some time.
And that’s also the case in England. We should be following the example set in Wales and removing all reference to gender in our uniform policy. We know that many schools have already done this, and that is undoubtedly a great start. But there are still schools who are resistant to change. For example, we all remember the group of thirty teenage boys who wore skirts to school in protest against a rule that didn’t allow them to wear shorts in hot weather.
That’s why this simple change in the law is so needed. Making uniforms gender neutral may not change the way most students dress, but it will help to create a culture of acceptance in our schools, where pupils are comfortable and confident, whatever their gender and whatever they choose to wear.
Layla Moran is the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon