An MP is questioning the policy of having different school uniforms for boys and girls, arguing that children should be able to choose what they wear to class.
Liberal Democrat Layla Moran is planning to propose a new law that forces schools in England to either have one uniform for everyone, or different types of uniform that children are allowed to wear on the basis of their preference not their gender.
Moran said she had been inspired by speaking to 15-year-old party member Jess Insall, who wanted to play football in breaks, but was forced to wear a skirt instead of trousers by her school’s uniform policy.
Moran, who is the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and also acts as the Lib Dems’ education spokesperson, described the proposed legislation as a “feminist issue first and foremost”, adding that it wasn’t about the state telling people what to wear, it was about increasing choice.
Moran isn’t the first person to argue for a gender neutral uniform policy. A similar law was proposed in Wales last year. In June 2017 a group of thirty boys wore skirts to school in Devon to protest against a rule that didn’t allow them to wear shorts in hot weather. Highlighting that it was unfair that girls had the option to have bare legs in the summer, when they didn’t.
It’s quite an emotional thing for children who are considering transitioning, actually being forced at that point to come out.
– Layla Moran MP
Moran pointed out that her campaign also supports trans rights, as children who are transitioning may feel uncomfortable with immediately changing uniform.
“It’s quite an emotional thing for children who are considering transitioning, actually being forced at that point to come out – that’s the way that one family put it to me,” she said.
Do Gendered School Uniforms Violate Equality Laws?
Image credit: flickr
The right to freedom from discrimination takes effect in UK law via the Human Rights Act 1998. This can be used to challenge discriminatory laws and practices in UK courts and under certain circumstances, individuals can also take cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
The UK is also subject to the Equality Act 2010 – although there is less case law surrounding this – which schools have legal duty to comply with.
According to official guidance from the government, compliance with the Act includes avoiding indirect discrimination of LGBT children which may arise where a school policy, such as a uniform – which is applied to all children equally – places a group of children or one individual child at a disadvantage.
The Equality Act does not deal specifically with school uniform and the government says it is for the governing body of a school to decide if it imposes rules relating to appearance and if so, what those should be.
However, that doesn’t mean headteachers can do exactly as they choose. The guidance makes it clear that schools must have regard to their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, as well as under equality law, and that they need to be careful that blanket uniform policies do not discriminate based on race, religion or belief, gender, disability, gender reassignment or sexual orientation.
We trust school leaders to make decisions about school uniform
– Department for Education spokesperson
According to the government, ‘differences in dress requirements for girls and boys are standard, and where they don’t have significantly more detrimental effects on one sex or the other they are unlikely to be regarded as discriminatory’. But it might be unlawful if, for example, the uniform was considerably more expensive for girls than for boys – or perhaps if it is significantly less comfortable.
Schools are also advised to consider whether flexibility is needed in relation to uniform to meet the needs of a pupil who is undergoing gender reassignment.
Leaving Decisions On Gendered Uniform Up To Headteachers
Image credit: pxhere
Moran will present her legislation in the House of Commons on 6 March, but it isn’t expected to pass without support from the Tories.
A Department for Education spokesperson said it was more likely to leave the decision down to individual schools, implying it would not enforce any new legislation on headteachers.
“We trust school leaders to make decisions about school uniform, as they are best placed to ensure these policies meet the needs of their pupils,” the department said.
Many schools, however, do agree with Moran, with an increasing number choosing to bring in gender neutral uniform despite it being left to their discretion.
The general public also appears to support gender-neutral uniform policy, with nearly half of women and more than a third of men strongly supporting uniform policies that allow both boys and girls to wear trousers and skirts, according to a YouGov survey of more than 3,400 UK adults in 2017.
School policies that allow students of either sex to wear trousers but allow only girls – and not boys – to wear skirts, were less popular, with only 32% of female and 33% of male respondents supporting this approach.
Uniform policies that deny pupils any choices are the least popular with only one in 20 women and one in 10 men being in favour of policies that force girls to wear skirts and boys to wear trousers.