Jess Insall’s clarion call for gender-neutral school uniforms

Given that there has been some comment about this policy proposal in the media and in some Liberal Democrat circles, it seemed like a good idea to publish Jess’s speech to Party Conference this weekend by way of answering some of the sceptics…

Thank you Chair, thank you Conference.

I am bursting for positive change. As a feminist, as an LGBTQ+ rights activist, and as a liberal democrat.

And we are making so many positive changes, but our schools are being caught short. There is one problem that causes so much harm, but is so simple to fix.


I am angry that girls are often forced to wear impractical and sexualised uniforms from ages as young as four years old.

Four years old.

The minute a girl walks into primary school she is shown that boys have more freedom to run about. She is taught to take inequality for granted, and to accept it as the norm.

We can change that. Instead of making all boys wear trousers, and all girls wear skirts, schools should simply let all pupils choose between trousers and skirts.

We need to stop telling our sisters and daughters to put the way they look before their education and we need to fight for their physical and mental health. As a feminist, I believe that is exactly what this amendment could do.

As an LGBTQ+ rights activist I am outraged because all pupils should have the right to feel valued and included at school, but if we don’t let them wear appropriate uniforms, or even acknowledge their sheer existence, this is just not a viable reality for some pupils.

We need to flush this blatant discrimination out of our school systems.

By making uniforms gender neutral, we give pupils the freedom decide how to dress appropriately for their personal identity, without limiting schools’ freedom to to decide what pupils can, or can’t, wear. This means transgender and non-binary pupils can dress appropriately for their gender, even if they’re not in a safe or comfortable place to come out formally to their school.

I joined this wonderful party only last June. I joined because of our values of openness, tolerance, and acceptance.

These were the very values that pushed me to put forward this amendment. Judging our young people on more than just their gender teaches them to be more open and accepting to those who are different. It teaches them to be tolerant to their classmates, but also their teachers, neighbours, friends, and family. This amendment will also support and enhance our existing policy on mental health, gender equality, improving education, and even freedom of movement. We need to give girls the freedom to move both of their legs, as independent limbs.

And I hear you ask… how could anyone oppose that?

The beloved Daily Mail warns us that “allowing boys to wear skirts for reasons of political correctness could be unsettling and confusing to some children.”

They’ve obviously never been to Scotland.

But our so called “equality” is useful for more than pissing off the right wing press. When pupils feel comfortable and welcome at school, it boosts self esteem and body positivity, which means pupils will be happier. And young people that enjoy education will engage more, and perform better academically.

Of course a lot of my discontent does come from personal experiences. From a young age, I have been jealous of my male friends’ ability to walk on a windy day without the colour of their undies entering the public domain. I have been jealous of their ability to run and climb, and I have always been conscious that there was a certain demeanour expected of me that was never expected of them.

But we’ve all had experiences like that. Whether we’re told to man up, or to act more ladylike, the problem is fundamentally the same.

When we tell people to act a certain way because of their gender, it spawns hatred, jealousy, and division.

So conference, let’s take this opportunity to diminish this division. Let’s give all pupils of all genders fairer school uniforms.

I urge you, as a feminist, as an LGBTQ+ rights activist, and as a liberal democrat, to vote in favour of this amendment.

Thank you conference.

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  • Tony Greaves 12th Mar '18 - 3:44pm

    Ah. Takes me back to the campaign my daughter and I ran when she was at school and I was on the governors (the dual approach?) I arranged an interview with the local radio station at our house with Victoria and a couple of her friends. At the Governors meeting the Senior Mistress (I think she was still called that) complained it had brought the school into disrepute before I said I had organised it and it showed how the school had such mature and articulate students… She then said “But they will all come wearing jeans”. I asked her why that did not happen with the lads. She shut up and I think we won the vote unanimously. Ah well, only about 25 years ago…

    But why does the pic show Tim when he was not there?

  • Tony Greaves 12th Mar '18 - 3:47pm

    It had all started off when a group of Year 10 lasses had got up a petition and taken it to the said Senior Mistress. She tore it up in front of them. The ultimate victory was sweet!

  • So is this policy going to apply to ALL schools: state, private and unregistered?
    Personally, I think it would be more appropriate if we spent time implementing a simple reform to the Education Act 2008, requiring ALL settings which cater for the education of children to be registered and granting LEA’s and Ofsted the power to inspect and shutdown and most importantly fine parents who send their children to unregistered schools or failing unregistered schools at the same day rate as parents of students attending state schools get charged for missed attendence…

  • John Marriott 12th Mar '18 - 4:07pm

    With all the world’s problems, including Brexit, and we are obsessing about school uniforms. Scrap the flippin’ lot, I say.

  • John Marriott 12th Mar '18 - 4:45pm

    Quite right, Chris Bowers. I also taught in what was then West Germany and Canada in the 1970s and made the same observation last week in the piece about Layla Moran. Uniform, or the price of it, has been a tool used by certain schools to avoid having to accept certain students.

    Whilst a smart appearance may have an influence on success for the individual,concerned it should never be the only consideration, as some schools appear to think. But this is the UK, isn’t it. We like to think that we have all the answers – at least some of us do!

  • Sean Hyland 12th Mar '18 - 5:36pm

    Can see any problem with giving children choice in “gender neutral” uniform. Should apply to all schools.

  • Martin Land 12th Mar '18 - 7:37pm

    Anything would be more acceptable than the school uniform I had to wear though it had the advantage that it was more or less impossible to ascertain the gender of the wearer. Despite that, in my time, the boys and girls were schooled in Horsham and Hertford respectively.
    It seems that this is a very sensitive issue to some but in secondary schools at least I think any decision should be made by the pupils. In my experience as a father, teacher and tutor I find young people today are considerably more fair-minded than we give them credit for!

  • Zoe O'connell 13th Mar '18 - 10:39am

    I’m the author of the amendment, so I can answer a few of the queries and concerns here.

    This was an amendment to the full education policy paper, so it’s not that we didn’t debate many other things too – the full education policy paper (“Every Child Empowered: Education for a changing world”) is 45 pages long and includes other stuff like replacing Ofsted, reducing SATs testing and addressing educational inequality.

    I know there is some debate on the appropriateness of uniforms at all but the wording of the amendment is intended to cover any school uniform policy, even if that policy is simply “no Bermuda shorts or exposed rude bits”. So the consequence is that schools would not be able to say (as some do) that girls can wear anything like like as long as it’s a skirt or a dress.

    And I agree that Jess is awesome.

  • I would much prefer that we campaign to end school uniforms entirely. That would, of course, meet the concerns about gender stereotyping, but it would also say much more about how we value pupils as individuals who should not be constrained by conformity.

    And before anyone mentions the old argument about the freedom to wear one’s own choice of clothes would simply expose differences in wealth, I would add my own experience. My primary school wanted me to enter for a scholarship at an independent school but I didn’t do so because my parents would not have been able to afford the uniform. As it was I turned up on the first day at my local authority new school in an obviously second hand uniform, and suffered great embarrassment as a result.
    Then 30 years later when my own sons attended a local authority school the uniform was ridiculously expensive and I’m sure would have put off several families. Today their blazer costs over £100. I know many schools promote cheaper options, but many still have very expensive school-specific items that can only be purchased from a specialist supplier.

    Let’s get rid of uniforms entirely – as in many countries around the world – and let children express their individuality.

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