What is the biggest annoyance for school students? Homework? Bullying? Having to go to school in the first place? In fact, according to the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union, uniforms top the grievance list.
And when it comes to this issue, students might be displaying significantly more reason than some of their elders.
Lucille O’Mahony (9) is a third-class pupil at Guardian Angels National School in Blackrock, Co Dublin. “Ever since I started school, I hated having to wear a skirt,” she says. “It’s not only harder to run around and play games in, but we’re also more likely to fall over and hurt ourselves. Boys never have to even think about this.”
Lucille occasionally wears her tracksuit to school. But sometimes, she says, teachers give out to her for it. When she asked why, she was told only that it was school policy. Last November she decided to take action.
“I started a petition. At first I asked some of my friends to sign it. Then I realised that, if it was to really speak for everyone, I needed signatures from boys, too. If girls should have the option of wearing trousers, why can’t boys wear a skirt?”
Some of the boys in her class laughed at her petition, but one of the most popular boys was quick to sign and back her up. Soon she had gathered some 45 signatures, including at least seven from boys, and presented it to the school principal, Padraig O’Neill, who was impressed.
“I didn’t know she was gathering signatures,” he says. “She organised it quietly and efficiently and asked me to present it to the board of management.
“We are taking the petition and the student’s case seriously and we will bring it to the board and also ask other stakeholders, including staff and parents, for their views.”
Democracy in action
With a general election campaign underway, O’Neill sees Lucille’s petition as a good example of democracy in action.
“Especially in the older classes, we teach the children about how democracy and society works, and how they can lobby, get involved and change things. To be honest, Lucille’s petition came out of the blue for me, but fair play to her.”
Student councils are now common in postprimary schools, but they remain a rarity in primary schools. O’Neill says there is no reason why they couldn’t work, and it could be a good opportunity to listen to, respect and engage with young people.
Uniform debates are, for many students, their first real taste of social action. It is not that students necessarily object to wearing a uniform.
“Young people clearly see the pros and cons in that age-old debate,” says Irish Second-Level Students’ Union president Rob O’Donnell (19). “It’s that girls complain about having to wear a skirt in the depths of winter, and that there are often stringent regulations about exactly how long the skirt has to be and what colour socks should be worn with it, and how high those socks need to be.”
O’Donnell says that the demands of schools are unjustifiable. “When we ask student councils about the issues of concern to them, this often comes up. It’s even more of a concern in mixed schools where, every day, girls see their male classmates come to school in trousers.
"Some girls really, really hate – absolutely hate – to wear skirts," he says. "It is a dated system. In any other walk of life, we wouldn't dream of telling girls that they have to wear a skirt. So why is it acceptable to inflict it on them at school?"
The three teaching unions say that uniform policy is a matter for individual schools. However, when it is asked the INTO advises members that boys and girls should be treated equally. The unions have also supported campaigns to reduce the overall costs of uniforms.
On the face of it, some of the rules governing school uniforms seem, at best, baffling and outdated.
Skirt length is carefully monitored in some schools: in some, the skirt has to be above the knee and the knee has to be showing, but the rest of the leg has to be covered with tall, white socks. Students can get in trouble for not conforming.
O’Donnell also points to regulations, many of which are clearly posted on school websites, governing whether or not boys can have any stubble or a beard, how long that beard may be, whether hair can be dyed or not and how long it can be, and whether or not piercings are allowed.
“We’ve seen situations in coeducational schools whereby the girls are allowed to dye their hair a natural colour, but the boys are not allowed at all,” he says. “How a young person appears makes no difference whatsoever to their education. My school was great, but I was 19 years old [sitting my Leaving Cert], and forced to wear a uniform and ask for permission to go to the toilet.
“Schools should be encouraging free thought and self-expression, not suppressing it.”
A FLASHPOINT FOR EQUALITY: SCHOOL UNIFORMS AND GENDER IDENTITY
Uniforms have long been a flashpoint. Barnardos has for many years run a campaign to reduce school costs.
The children’s charity consistently identifies the high cost of uniforms as a key issue that places undue pressure on parents, particularly those who are struggling financially.
School uniforms are of particularly significant symbolic value for transgender students who want to see their identity recognised.
For reasons of comfort and practicality, some transgender girls still prefer to wear trousers after their social transition.
Gendered uniforms present a particular problem for transgender boys, who were assigned female at birth but identify and want to be recognised as male.
Late last month the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network issued a set of guidelines to schools about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
The guidelines stress that students are expected to follow the school uniform policy on appropriate dress, jewellery and make-up. However, students who are transgender should be allowed to wear a uniform that is consistent with their gender identity, and that, at a minimum, a gender-neutral option should be offered.
Seamus (16) is a trans boy from Co Meath. He was assigned female at birth.
“Our school’s uniforms are too gendered,” he says. “The jumpers, shirts and bottoms are different depending on your gender. Even the colours differ.
“I think if everyone was allowed to wear skirts, then more students would. I think if someone who identified as female came in wearing a grey shirt and slacks, they may be told off, but if a boy came in wearing a skirt he would be sent home.
“My principal has been supportive. But before I transferred here, I was at an all-girls school where trans students were told they couldn’t change their uniform because of tradition.
“I started a petition, as sitting in a blouse and skirt all day made me feel insanely anxious,” he says. “I wasn’t taken seriously. This is atrocious and damaging to a young person’s mental health; that uniform nearly destroyed me.
“Changing a uniform can really make a big difference to young trans people.”
- BeLonGTo offers a support group for young trans people: belongto.org