Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Self-Policing Of Gendered School Uniforms

"You got your cardigan dirty yesterday so you'll need to wear your jumper today."

"But I don't want to wear my jumper! People will say I look like a boy!"

This was the conversation I had with Girl Child yesterday morning as she got ready for school. Actually, it's pretty much verbatim the conversation we have every time her cardigan is dirty.

This week the Church of England issued guidance to schools saying children should be free to dress up however they wish, not just adhering to gender 'rules'. I am so happy that the Church has taken this stance - I know some have accused them of hypocrisy given the in-fighting they've had over female clergy and LGBT issues but as far as I'm concerned any progress is good progress. The guidance acknowledges childhood as a safe space to play around with gender roles and work out what they really mean and I think that's fantastic.

The thing is, I think school staff know this on the whole, but, because of the messages surrounding them in our society, children are pretty ruthless in policing gender norms. And not just in terms of play - it's something I've noticed in terms of school uniform.

Our school does not specify particular items of uniform as being for boys or for girls.There is no reference in the policy to boys or girls at all, even when discussing the summer options of shorts or dresses, or when talking about hairstyles. (Long hair must be tied back - I was annoyed at first but then realised it's a nit thing.) I'm aware that other schools do still specify different uniforms for boys and girls so I was relieved to see our school was more forward-thinking than that.

And yet Girl Child will often say that she's had comments from other children when wearing the 'wrong' uniform for her gender. Admittedly she does tend to embellish the truth, but I believe that comments do occur, even if not as regularly as she makes out. I was expecting it when she wore trousers instead of a skirt, but since when was a jumper just for boys? And, for that matter, why are cardigans seen as just for girls? I don't think I've ever seen a boy in a school cardigan.

Then there are shoes. When she first started school there were no options for practical, hard-wearing shoes that covered the whole foot in the girls' section so she wore boys' shoes. We have to walk nearly a mile to school and live in Yorkshire, Mary-Janes won't cut it for keeping her feet warm and dry. But then she got comments, and that bothered her, so I was relieved this year to find Clarks had introduced a token pair of trainer-style shoes with scuff bars in the girls' section. They even have patent straps to 'pretty' them up a bit which was important to Girl Child. But guess what? She still says she gets comments about them being boys' shoes.

I don't really know what the answer is here. If even at a school with a non-gendered uniform list the children still decide what's for girls and what's for boys, what can we do? I'm a bit tired of parroting the same old phrases - "I wear trousers and jumpers, so they're not just for boys. They're not boys' shoes, they're your shoes. There's no such thing as clothes for girls and clothes for boys. Etc etc etc." How many more times do I have to say them before my daughter is comfortable standing up for herself on this? And why the heck should she have to?

I'm really encouraged to see progress happening in what is on offer for boys and girls to wear. I love that shops are starting to see the benefits of not dividing clothes up along gender lines for kids, and I'm happy that the growing number of parents speaking up about this are being listened to. What I wasn't expecting, perhaps few of us were, is how long it'll take for this new 'gender-neutral' ethos to trickle down to the very children who are impacted.

I'm not blaming the kids at all. The urge to find rules in everyday life and enforce them is strong in children, it helps them make sense of the world at a time when it's hard to understand nuance. And where they see patterns (of behaviour, dress etc) they will jump to rules. It just makes me realise what I'm up against. Even if all schools stop gendering uniforms, even if all shops stop dividing their clothes between boys and girls, how long will it take for this culture to fade away amongst children?

Have you come against similar issues with school uniform?

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