‘It was to put girls in their place’: A male teacher explains how he really feels about school uniforms
‘There’s something creepy about a man looking at a girl’s skirt length’
We all remember the days, rolling the waistband of your skirt up to make it shorter, plastering yourself with as much Dream Matte Mousse as possible, all to be ordered to pull down, scrub off or remove whatever the offending issue was once you walked through the school gates.
Girls school uniform rules are ridiculous and oppressive. We were all pretty much in agreement of this, but it frustrates me to admit I was seemingly too preoccupied or uneducated to articulate how uncomfortable it made me feel to be told what to do with my own body.
Instead I resorted to screaming “perv” at the (admittedly slightly pervy) PE teacher across the assembly hall, who took great delight in pointing out the length of my skirt or how my bra was showing through my school shirt. Instead of tackling what seems to be the glaringly obvious issue here: a middle aged man sexualising a 15-year-old girl, I was threatened with expulsion and had to write a letter apologising for being born a woman and thus growing breasts and having thighs that were somehow inappropriate.
However, it seems that recently issues such as the policing of children’s bodies in our schools are actually being discussed a little more. In light of this I decided to get in touch with one of my old teachers and see if he could shed some light on how he really felt about school uniform.
To what extent did you really feel that uniform rules were important?
“In my opinion the uniform debate has gone from laisse faire to almost bullying and this has become national news in some instances. It’s almost as if teachers or headteachers feel that uniform rules will fix the other shortcomings (behaviour and language). A lot of teachers and quite a few parents see the uniform as a cure for all the schools’ shortcomings. It’s an easy target and can be the first thing a new head will tackle straight on as the staff and pupils can see just how strong the new head is. God forbid that they try to encourage individuality and a sense of positivity.”
Did it make you feel uncomfortable as a male teacher telling female students how to dress?
“As a form tutor, I was told to check the girls’ skirt length and their shoes. And, in fairness, we had to check the boys’ shoes too. I always felt like who the hell was I to stand there first thing in the morning and pull miscreants to one side for some uniform infringement, and then expect a happy fulfilling day of education?
There’s something creepy about a man looking at a girl’s skirt length, and there’s something imbalanced about making a judgment on it. Surely it must tell the girls that the patriarchal authority has the final say? School uniform makes body-image much less pronounced, yes, but it should be a choice for the pupil to make, not their form teacher.”
Many people would argue that girl’s school uniform in particular can be distracting for boys in the class, how do you feel about this?
“It was becoming obvious to me that the girls had to modify their behaviour to pacify the boys. It was an outrage to me that the boys couldn’t get on with their school lives because the girls were ‘putting them off’. Surely the boys needed to be told to get a grip and not be put off by what someone else was wearing in their class? It’s like saying that the boys’ career prospects were being ruined by these demon girls who insisted on wearing short skirts – how utterly absurd and sexist. The boys were being given a lesson in how to maintain their ‘superiority’ and the girls were taught to ‘know their place’.
I am of the opinion that these are the kinds of school uniform rules imposed on girls that has led to the rape-blame culture where women are seen as ‘asking for it’ or ‘partly to blame’ for being sexually assaulted. It seemed to perpetuate the dangerous lie that women’s choice of clothing for a night out or even work is the cause of unwanted sexual attention, and not the men’s lack of self control.”
Lots of teachers put forward the idea that school is preparation for a work environment, and that’s why uniform rules are in place. Do you agree with this?
“It’s utter bullshit.
The uniform in the armed services is worn with pride and earned through hard training. Other than that, companies insist on uniform to identify from the public. Let’s face it, it hardly takes five years of school uniform to get that into your head. Most uniforms in the work place are a form of PPE (personal protective equipment) like police, armed forces, nurses, council refuse workers, and the like. School uniform is not a form of PPE. Other uniforms are form of corporate identity to help identify those in service, as it were – air cabin crew, supermarkets, and the like.”
If it were up to you, what importance would uniform have really held in your classroom?
“It was my job as a teacher to engage with each pupil and to ensure that they were learning to their best ability, not to change their personalities. I would secretly love it when the girls would wear something which the school management viewed as outrageous – for example, there was a time when the girls enjoyed wearing flower bands in their hair. They looked fabulous in my opinion, and they were happy and confident. But that was short-lived as the school took to banning hair adornments. It was another example of school treading on the girls’ development as young adults finding their identity. Here was I as a teacher actively promoting difference, diversity and individuality in what I taught, only to have it all negated bluntly by some stupid and petty school uniform rule. If the girls wanted to look pretty, feel mature, grown-up, and self-confident, then who am I to say differently? If they made mistakes in make-up, hair, or shoes in terms of style, I was probably the least qualified to point that out.
In my opinion it was all done purely to put the girls firmly back in their place – under the thumb of a society which frowns upon individuality and self expression, and nothing whatsoever to do with education, learning or achievement. And all done publicly in front of peers too under the guise of ‘standards.”
Do you think that the policing of young people’s bodies and individual style is anti-feminist?
“I feel like schools are increasingly becoming an instrument of conservativism – to maintain the status quo. And I don’t think that the status quo includes the promotion of feminism. Schools often promote girls into STEM and science areas, but on the other hand they are quick to demolish any hopes of forming an identity through dress or appearance. The policing of bodies and image is endemic in schools and this does create a patriarchal microcosm – schools act as parents who control the child’s clothes, like infants unable to make the right choice.
An example of the policing of young people’s bodies was a boy, in this case, who underwent years of shameful daily bullying by the deputy head. Obviously he wasn’t openly perceived as a girl, but he had an identity which he adhered to, which may well have been gay or transgender (it doesn’t matter to any of us, but it mattered to him). He would come to school aged thirteen in year 9 wearing make-up, skinny trousers, and very effeminate shirts. But he wore the blazer and tie. I saw this boy as who he was – a boy who was saying to world quite proudly this is me and if you don’t like it then fuck you. But every day he was accosted by the deputy head who publicly tore a strip off him about his dress sense. He was shouted at in front of his peers that he should be dressed in the uniform – as a boy. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence would see that this boy was not happy to present himself as a boy as we all expected. He was not allowed to be who he clearly was. His gender identity (and it was his choice – if indeed it is a choice – of identity, not ours as teachers) was denied. The school’s uniform was more important than his lifelong gender identity and sexuality. He was creative and intelligent, that should have been the important thing to us.”
What can we do to make dress codes in school a more positive and constructive part of education?
“There is an argument for uniform often made – that it is a great leveller. I’m not going to beat around the bush here, a child from a lower income family was still sometimes immediately distinguishable by the uniform. I remember one occasion when a pupil who came to school with no dinner money. He came to me in the dinner hall and told me he had no money and that he was hungry. I took him to the year head to see if we could get a couple of quid for him. The year head took one look at his trainers and said, “I’d be inclined to help, but not while you’re wearing those trainers.” This is how uniform can twist a professional’s sense of judgment and compassion. I feel that we need more of a standard of uniform rather than a set dress code. For instance, to look presentable, clean and generally smart but to avoid the construction of rigid rules like the ones in place today, particularly those that create and perpetuate oppressive ideals.
Schools might well also learn a great deal from feminism. I would struggle to find a colleague who wasn’t a feminist, or didnt believe in equal rights, however we all continued to adhere to these unbelievably sexist school rules. Historically, uniform comes from old established boys’ public school, and so it has a patriarchal beginning and this still hanging on now, I believe we need to reshape the whole, archaic idea of school uniform.”