Why gender neutral school uniform policies matter

One of the highlights of Scottish Liberal Democrat conference yesterday was a motion calling for:

The requirement that schools provide inclusive, non- prescriptive, gender neutral school uniform policies.

The government to provide support and advice to schools adapting or changing their policies to make them more inclusive.

Awareness of the detrimental effect that discriminatory school uniforms have on girls, and to a heightened extent, on transgender and non-binary pupils.

Adequate training for school staff on how to review and improve their school uniform policies.

It was submitted by Jess Insall, a 15 year old who only joined the party in June this year. She gave an amazing speech proposing the motion. At Spring Conference there is an award for the best speech of Conference. Sadly, we don’t award it in Autumn. However, I can reproduce the speech in its entirety here.

It was one of those speeches that, when the red light came on, you wanted to continue. In fact, Jess kind of ignored it and so did the session chair.

Deputy Leader Jo Swinson also spoke in the debate and talked about her campaign when she was at school to have trousers permitted for girls. She mentioned a story about girls, forced to wear dresses, being stopped from doing cartwheels because it wasn’t lady-like.

If a uniform stops you doing cartwheels, then it’s the wrong uniform.

Jess’s motion passed by a huge margin. Here is her speech:

Our society is moving in the right direction. As a feminist, I am proud that gender equality is becoming a realistic goal for the future. As an LGBTQ+ rights activist I am proud that transgender and non binary people are finally starting to get the rights and recognition they are so long overdue. And as a Scottish Liberal Democrat, I am proud that the fair, free, and open Scotland we believe in is continuing to stand up to hatred and bigotry.

We are winning the battles, but the war is not yet over.

Our schools are being left behind, and there is one problem that causes so much harm, but is so simple to fix.

Uniforms.

Is it really acceptable that we dictate the way our children dress based on only their gender, or in many cases, the gender that society forces them to conform to?

Girls are faced with discomfort, discrimination, and complete disregard for their physical and mental health.

Boys are desensitised, forced to conform to strict stereotypes, and often discouraged from being themselves, or expressing their feelings.

Non binary pupils are completely disregarded, disrespected, and denied recognition and basic human decency.

This must change.

As a feminist, I am angry about the harm that sexist uniforms are doing to young girls. I’m not telling anyone to take away their skirts. I’m telling you all that pupils should have the freedom to dress appropriately for their personal identity, regardless of their gender. Instead of saying “girls wear this, boys wear that” schools can simply say “pupils may wear either this, or that”.

Giving girls more practical uniform options can encourage physical activity. This is crucial, as Scottish government statistics published in 2012 indicate that while 76% of boys meet physical activity guidelines, the figure for girls is significantly lower, at only 70%. This gender gap widens when we look at adults, with 45% of men, but only 33% of women getting enough exercise.

This figure is affected by many factors, but I believe one of the most significant is the harmful gender stereotypes that sexist uniform policies promote.

These are the same stereotypes that destroy girls’ body image and self esteem. Many school uniforms sexualise and objectify girls 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 told that whilst she has to wear a skirt, the boys don’t. She is taught to take inequality for granted, and to respect it as the norm.

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

As an LGBTQ+ rights activist, I am outraged by the abhorrent discrimination that transgender and non binary pupils face.

I am outraged because schools should be a place where young people feel safe, included, and valued. But all too often, trans and non binary pupils are denied even these most basic decencies.

Forcing pupils to choose between a “girl” uniform and a “boy” uniform is not acceptable. It leaves pupils who are questioning their gender in an impossible situation. They are faced with the choice of either coming out to their school, even if they don’t feel comfortable or ready, or wearing a uniform that doesn’t fit with their gender identity, which can be incredibly uncomfortable and demeaning.
When transgender pupils do come out, making the sudden switch between uniforms can draw unwanted attention to them, and unfortunately lead to transphobic bullying.

Rigid binary uniforms are also extremely harmful to non binary pupils, as they leave students choosing between two unsuitable uniform options. By making uniforms gender neutral, we give them the freedom to decide how to dress appropriately for their personal identity, without limiting schools’ freedom to decide what pupils can or can’t wear. By giving pupils this freedom, we encourage them to respect other students’ choices and individuality. We teach them that they are not defined by their gender, and not to define others by their genders.

This is why, as an LGBTQ+ rights activist, I am convinced that this is a step we must take towards equality for transgender and non binary people.

I joined this wonderful party only this June. It wasn’t any particular policies, not even Brexit, that convinced me to join. I joined because of the values of openness, tolerance, and equality, that are so fundamental to everything we do.

These very values are what pushed me to put forward this motion in the first place. Gender neutral school uniforms teach our young people to be more open and accepting to those who are different. It teaches them to be tolerant towards not only their classmates, but also their neighbours, teachers, friends, and family. It ensures that all pupils are equal, regardless of gender.

Saying this, as a Scottish Liberal Democrat, there are some existing policies that this motion will support and enhance. It highlights our commitment to mental health, gender equality, LGBTQ+ equality, improving education, and even freedom of movement. We need to give girls the freedom to move both of their legs, as independent limbs.

This all makes me very optimistic. But unfortunately, not everyone is quite as exited as I am.
The beloved daily mail. It 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 just annoying right wing newspapers. Gender neutral uniforms will make a real impact on pupils’ school lives. When pupils feel comfortably and appropriately dressed, it boosts self esteem and body positivity. This in turn can boost mental health, which means pupils will be happier and more productive in schools. This leads to better exam results, which can lead pupils to better jobs.

So to the daily mail, I would like to say this: next time you complain about gender neutral school uniforms being politically correct, why not also complain about them being morally correct, and in the long term, economically correct.

I would like to make it very, very clear that this motion is about freedom and choice. It will not affect individuals who do not wish to be affected. Girls can keep their skirts, boys can keep their trousers. All this motion does is ensure that nobody is excluded, disadvantaged, or forgotten about. It gives schools a solid framework that they can build on and personalise to fit their needs. It’s a small step forward, but it will make a huge difference.

I am also not going to ignore the fact that a lot of my discontent does come from my own 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 in the playground, and 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 this. Whether we’re told to act more ladylike, or to man up, the problem is fundamentally the same.

When we tell people they have 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 Scottish Liberal Democrat, to vote in favour of this motion.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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10 Comments

  • Some of the speech is a bit hyperbolic but the point is valid.
    It seems odd that this is still a discussion to be had. It is much easier to have a uniform policy line that says:
    Trousers of X colour or skirt of X colour not longer than A cm and no sorter than B cm (from the knee).
    Than to say:
    For boys, trousers of X colour and for girls skirt of X colour not longer than A cm and no sorter than B cm (from the knee).
    I know of one English school who took that view from at least the late 80s (efficiency of words making much more sense), then they focused on trying to police that policy. Frankly they had enough stress policing the policy as it stood, girls trousers actually gave less room for “adaptation” that then required policing so were a preferable option.

  • Ross Stalker 12th Nov '17 - 3:43pm

    Not to be pedantic, but technically the motion as amended called for “The Scottish Government to require that schools provide inclusive, non- prescriptive, gender neutral school uniform policies.”

  • paul barker 12th Nov '17 - 4:07pm

    Based on the experience of my Daughter & other Girls she knew its a common experience for Schoolgirls to be Sexually Propositioned in the Street. This seems to be something particularly to do with wearing a Uniform, my Daughter found that these approaches dropped off dramatically when she went to 6th Form College & stopped wearing Uniform.
    It seems to me that this makes a strong case for scrapping School Uniform altogether.

  • I’ve never really liked the idea of school uniforms. It’s always struck me as some sort of attempt to regiment youngsters from a bygone era.

  • Jay McCarthy 12th Nov '17 - 11:52pm

    This should be seen as a clothing question. Some of this still is separating boys and girls into categories. With neutral gender uniforms, who should care if a boy wears a skirt one day and trousers another. The same should be available to the girls. This is a CLOTHING question.

  • Kay Kirkham 13th Nov '17 - 8:45am

    I agree with Glenn. If education is about developing individual potential , then making pupils all wear the same clothing runs directly counter to that aim.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Nov '17 - 1:39pm

    A very fine speech from a very welcome young member with a really strong sense of belief made practical.

    A terrific quote

    “instead of girls wear this boys where that, schools can simply say pupils may either wear this or that.”

    This is Liberal Democrat philosophy , this is Liberalism, this is Mill.

    Jess might not realise it , but she has , in one speech cut through and made nonsense of the divide that does not or should not exist between orange book and social liberalism.

    She is talking about the Harm principle. She talks sense, and there is a sense here that she has much to offer.

  • Great speech. Looking forward to seeing/hearing more of Jess.

  • My school had this a few years after I left in the 1990s. It was “Uniform A” or “Uniform B”, so the girls could get rid of their skirts if they were willing to adopt the less pleasant parts of our uniform (particularly wearing ties).

    At that time (in small town north of England) the boys wouldn’t have had the cultural freedom to go the other way, but at least the school was no longer contributing to it with its rule.

  • Beautiful speech from Jess there, thanks for presenting it for all of us who weren’t in the hall.

    “They’ve obviously never been to Scotland” — winning line and a fine example of tailoring a speech to your audience!

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