TROUSER BLOG – Do you hear the people sing?
‘Do you hear the people sing?
It is the voice of angry men’.
These are the first lines of one of the songs from the musical Les Miserables, the story about (amongst other things) a group of student idealists in the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution. This particular song is about the rising voice of ‘the people’ who were still being oppressed by a government which was blind to their wants and needs, and deaf to the clamour that ‘the people’ were beginning to make. ‘The people’ had had enough, and the students were in the vanguard of a revolt.
Roll on just under 200 years, replace ‘men’ by ‘young women and men’ and go first to the Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in November 2017, where a 15-year-old schoolgirl called Jess put forward a motion, calling for all schools to have a gender-neutral uniform for their students. This time those in positions of power and authority were listening to the voice of ‘the people’. Not only was the motion carried at the party conference but in December 2017, the Scottish Government announced that schools across the country should consider making school uniforms gender-neutral rather than forcing girls to wear skirts and boys to wear trouser (https://inews.co.uk/news/education/scotland-gender-neutral-school-uniforms/). So far so good – this is the first time that a government agency has given school managers a positive steer towards a gender neutral school uniform policy rather than just saying that uniforms should not discriminate between genders and then leaving it up to courts to decide what ‘discrimination’ actually means.
However, Jess is not the only person who has successfully made the student voice heard in school uniform matters. Recall that in the summer of 2017, some 30 boys at Exeter Academy wore skirts to school as a protest about not being able to wear shorts in summer because they were too hot in their trousers. Exeter Academy does have a gender neutral school policy but did not allow shorts to be worn by either girls or boys. On hot days, the girls could wear skirts to keep themselves cool so some of the boys felt that this was unfair and after requests to wear shorts were denied, they decided to wear skirts instead of trousers. There was little the Head Teacher could do since there was nothing to say that boys could not wear skirts. Very quickly the Head saw the logic of the boys’ argument and allowed them (and hopefully the girls too) to wear shorts (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-40364632School). In 2016, the girls at Birkenhead High School Academy organised a survey to find out how many of the girls wanted to be able to wear trousers to school as part of the school uniform. When they presented their results, the head and the governors were so impressed by the initiative of the girls that they said they would introduce trousers into the school uniform. (http://trousersforall.co.uk/successful-campaigns/)
In most areas of this country and abroad, the demand for gender neutral school uniforms and items such as trousers for girls and shorts for everyone have usually been led by parents, but increasingly and particularly in secondary schools, it is often the students who are taking the lead. This is quite a difficult thing for students to do because teachers and school managers have a whole arsenal of ammunition, subtle and not so subtle, that they can use against those who dare to challenge their authority, so students are often scared to challenge the status quo. But things are changing and this is partly due to changes in the curriculum as well as in society.
Many of the schools that insist that girls wear skirts (frequently private schools, faith schools, grammar schools, all-girls schools) are the same ones that pride themselves on producing future leaders for a progressive society; i.e. people who are articulate, can argue rationally and defend their arguments. The problem for those schools is that many of their students can see the contradictions between what the teachers and school managers say, what the schools do, and what happens in the world outside education. There is no point in a school trying to produce leaders for a progressive society while at the same time insisting on regressive gender discrimination. The management of Birkenhead High School Academy and Exeter Academy clearly realised this. We hope that Jess’s success in getting the Scottish government to listen to and support her voice will be reflected in the attitude of her school towards its school uniform and will also set an example for the Education Departments in the other UK countries.
Let 2018 be the year of more student action on this issue.