While school officials in the United States continue to debate which bathrooms transgender students should be allowed to access, in the U.K., more than 80 state schools have now adopted gender-neutral school uniform policies to encourage inclusivity, even for elementary school students. According to The Guardian, the new policies mean that, while students are still required to wear uniforms to school, they will no longer have to adhere to a set "girls' uniform" and "boys' uniform," choosing instead to wear whatever part of it they feel most comfortable in. The decision comes as part of a government initiative to encourage LGBTQ rights in the classroom, and more schools are expected to follow suit throughout the U.K. Could gender-neutral school uniforms come to the US? Probably not — at least not in the same way.
One of the obvious differences between school uniform policies in the United States and the U.K. is that, well, the United States doesn't really have them. Although the vast majority of students in the U.K. (more than 90 percent, according to The Guardian) are required to wear a formal uniform — traditionally consisting of dress shirts and pants for boys, and blouses and skirts for girls — students in the United States are more likely to wear their usual clothes, guided by a dress code (only 19 percent of public school students in the United States wore a formal uniform in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).
In a way, the pre-existing uniform policies have meant it's been pretty easy for U.K. schools to make the transition to gender-neutral school uniforms — that is, they just made the exact same uniform available for all students, as opposed to dividing the clothing options down a gendered line. And unsurprisingly, the new policy hasn't actually changed very much about what students wear to school. The biggest change, secondary school teacher Liana Richards told The Guardian, was that more girls are choosing to wear pants instead of a skirt (shocking!):
It’s about recognizing the rights of students who feel they might not fit into the binary genders. It’s less of a big deal to the students than you might think. We haven’t seen that much difference yet.
If the change seems like a positive step towards inclusivity (and it certainly does), then why not implement it for American students too? Well, to start, making U.S. dress codes inclusive would have to involve much more than just removing gendered pronouns on clothing item descriptions — according to many critics, the entire system would need an overhaul.
Although on the surface, it would seem that American schools' approach to clothing restrictions would be more lenient than the U.K.'s uniform policy, students have argued that many current school dress codes unfairly target females, and in some cases lead to straight-up shaming and sexism. Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project wrote in an article in TIME in 2015 showing that far too many U.S. students have stories of double standards in the way dress codes are enforced against female students, where the primary concern often appears to be "not distracting" male students and teachers. One contributor to the Everyday Sexism project said,
I got dress coded at my school for wearing shorts. After I left the principal’s office with a detention I walked past another student wearing a shirt depicting two stick figures: the male holding down the females head in his crotch and saying ‘good girls swallow’. Teachers walked right past him and didn’t say a thing.
According to The Atlantic, it's not unusual for school dress codes to explicitly focus more on restricting girls' clothing choices, and that,
female-specific policies account for a disproportionate number of the attire rules included in school handbooks. Certain parts of Arkansas’s statewide dress code, for example, exclusively applies to females.
Unsurprisingly, with so much variation in school dress codes throughout the country, and a virtually-unlimited number of ways that students' outfit choices can violate those rules, American dress codes tend to not be very accommodating to transgender or gender-fluid students either, according to The Atlantic:
Transgender students have been sent home for wearing clothing different than what’s expected of their legal sex, while others have been excluded from yearbooks. Male students, using traditionally female accessories that fell within the bounds of standard dress code rules, and vice versa, have been nonetheless disciplined for their fashion choices.
Of course, the U.K. uniform system is far from perfect — many critics of mandatory uniforms argue that they are expensive, outdated, classist, and oppressive, and the idea that some schools still expect all female students to wear skirts and dresses is totally antiquated. But, given the problems that students in the United States face on a regular basis thanks to school dress codes, the idea of a gender-neutral, U.K.-style school uniform seems like a pretty positive step in the right direction. Especially if the goal is to make schools safe, inclusive environments (which they totally should be).