Giving students more choice over what they wear to school may be good news practically, but are the changes coming from the right place, asks Caroline Farrow? Using uniform to make a highly-contested political statement should have no place in our education system



The news that many schools, including Christian state primaries and secondaries, have adopted gender-neutral school uniforms puts me in mind of a saying. Referencing French writer, Charles Baudelaire when he said: “The cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist”, Christian apologist Ken Amni added: “The second greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he is the good guy.”

Because, on the surface at least, introducing a gender neutral uniform appears an eminently sensible policy.

Whereas I was once more traditionalist, believing schools ought to insist on skirts for female pupils, being a mum to children with sensory issues has taught me that trousers are often a lot more practical. They look every bit as smart as skirts; they mean girls no longer have to deal with (often uncomfortable) hosiery and teachers no longer have to admonish pupils who roll up the waistbands of their skirts to pelmet proportions. Upskirting becomes a non-issue. Women can wear trousers in a work environment and there is no reason why this should not be extended to schools.

Within a week of starting secondary school, two of my children were asked about their gender identity

Conversely, it seems only fair that boys ought to be allowed to wear shorts in extreme heat. It feels extremely unfair that while girls are wearing checked summer dresses or skirts, their male counterparts are having to sweat it out in long polyester trousers!

Erasing sex

Making pupils feel more comfortable, while retaining practicality and smartness, is not, however, what many school’s gender-neutral uniform policy is about. In many cases, the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ have been erased from written documents altogether. Stevensons, one of the oldest school uniform suppliers in the UK, removed all references to ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ from their website back in 2019. Uniform choices are now all about allowing children to “reflect their self-identified gender”, choosing whether to wear uniform A, B or, in some cases, C.

The entire point of a school uniform is that it is supposed to be an equaliser, eradicating differences and division (such as between richer and poorer pupils) and creating a unified sense of identity. A gender-neutral uniform policy that pushes the boundaries of accepted social conventions about clothing undermines this concept.

It is not patriarchal or sexist to accept Western conventions regarding female and male clothing, which are predicated around the fact that men and women are, in fact, different. A gender-neutral uniform policy is pandering to the unscientific - as well as deeply un-Christian - notion that there is absolutely no difference between the sexes, and that we should all be considered one amorphous mass. That ideology is equally harmful to both sexes. Recognising that both sexes should enjoy the same rights to education and opportunities is not the same thing as saying that we should erase or ignore our biological differences.

Tolerance and welcome

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that they are places of welcome for children from all backgrounds, and to foster a culture of tolerance and acceptance. Adopting a gender-neutral uniform policy does not help children to accept who they are, or the bodies they have been given, but rather forces them to make an adult political statement about which gender they identify with, based on stereotypes.

Identity politics is already far too prevalent in education. Within a week of starting secondary school, two of my children were asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity by their peers - a line of questioning that they found confusing and intrusive at the tender age of eleven.

On the surface at least, introducing a gender neutral uniform appears an eminently sensible policy

Schools who allow for gender-neutral uniforms are granting an official seal of approval to one of the most highly contested ideologies of our time - the notion that being male or female is about personal feeling and presentation. Schools who embed and promote gender ideology as part of their ethos are every bit as extreme as those who would seek to impose a literal understanding of religious texts upon children.

There is a profound difference between extending the range of clothing items that can be worn by each of the sexes for reasons of comfort and practicality, and allowing uniform to become an expression of political identity. Instead of fostering a sense of community, that sets some children apart.