Guest writer, Hadley, reflects on the issue of gender in relation to school uniforms.
A secondary school in East Sussex came under the spotlight earlier this week after its headteacher announced plans to introduce a more gender neutral uniform policy. Priory School in Lewes will be rolling out a trouser-only policy this autumn for all new pupils, in order to address the issue of gender inequality. The decision has divided many groups, with certain parents describing the move as “draconian” and others calling for pupils to have more choice when it comes to their uniforms. So, does changing a uniform policy suffice when it comes to bridging the gender gap in schools?
The change in policy demonstrates that the headteacher has an awareness of the need to create a more gender neutral environment in his school. Given that these children will grow up to be the future generations of this country, a school seems like the ideal location to begin to address the issues surrounding gender inequalities. That being said, is the head taking one big step back on the road to gender equality? He has opted for trousers over other items of clothing to make the uniform gender neutral. I’d argue that although contemporary views on trousers are shifting, they remain – in some people’s view – an expression of masculinity. In this instance, imposing a policy that would see all pupils wearing trousers may emphasise the idea that masculinity is the prevailing position in a gender debate.
But does the issue of gender inequality stop when a school changes its uniform policy? As someone who was educated at an all-boys school, it was made clear to me that gender was an issue that would dictate my curriculum from early on. The emphasis was very much placed on ‘hard’ subjects, such as maths and sciences, with creative subjects popping up as an afterthought. I remember drama being on my timetable during my first year at the school, but then falling off completely accompanied by a gradual diminution in the number of art and music lessons as the years went by. Of course, it can be argued that an all-boys school may be the most challenging of environments in which to attempt to breakdown certain gender norms. The very nature of separating boys and girls in an education system emphasises the notion that society views gender as a binary concept, limiting pupils the freedom to express their gender as they wish.
Although I am not calling for the closure of all single-sex schools, I would emphasise that in these schools, the notion of gender is something that should be explored more openly. Many pupils will enjoy the security of a masculine learning environment, yet others will find it suffocating and limiting. Perhaps it is the ideal location to challenge traditional gender norms, educating pupils that although they are attending a single-sex school, the expression of gender is fluid and diversity is something that should be celebrated.
Something that was apparent to me were the efforts made to encourage my friends in the girls’ school to take up subjects such as maths, science and engineering at university. Sadly, there was not the same level of encouragement for boys to take up female-dominated university subjects, such as philosophy, English or nursing. I fear that we may have forgotten about the societal pressures of masculinity and how they can limit a student’s school experience. For there to be true gender equality, we must remember that it is a two way street. All students, irrespective of their gender, should be encouraged to take up subjects that they feel passionate about and not feel limited because of archaic gender norms.
It’s clear that gender is an issue that extends well beyond the seams of the trousers in an East Sussex school. Although I believe that the headteacher should be praised for being willing to address the issue of gender inequality in schools, I doubt that asking all pupils to wear trousers will truly bridge the gender divide or serve to acknowledge gender as a spectrum. Perhaps a more proactive approach to encouraging freedom to pupils to express their gender as they wish may be a way forward. It is important to remember than gender equality is about inclusivity, not conformability. Schools and education policy should promote the idea of having an education environment that facilitates its pupils in reflecting on gender and promoting a celebration of diversity.
Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)