School uniforms could be restricting physical activity among young girls – study

School uniforms could be restricting young people’s physical activity – especially among younger girls, a global study has suggested.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed data on the physical activity levels of more than a million young people aged five to 17 in 135 countries and regions, including England, Scotland and Wales.

In the countries where most schools require uniforms to be worn, fewer young people tend to meet the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) than in the countries where school uniforms are less common, the study found.

Across all countries, the difference in the percentage of boys and girls meeting physical activity guidelines across all ages was 7.6 percentage points.

Among primary school-aged children, “greater gender inequalities” in physical activity were found in countries where most schools mandated uniforms.

The gap widened from 5.5 percentage points at primary school level in non-uniform countries to a 9.8 percentage point difference in countries where uniforms were required in most schools.

Uniforms are associated with greater gender inequalities in physical activity among primary school pupils, but the same result was not found in secondary school students, according to the study.

The researchers said the age-based findings may be partly explained by marked differences in how and where young people exercise.

They said primary school-aged children are more likely to accrue physical activity from “active play” throughout the day – such as running, climbing and jumping during breaks – when they are wearing their uniform.

Adolescents, on the other hand, are more likely to carry out physical activity from “structured activities” during which they may be encouraged or required to change.

“This may present greater challenges for girls if they are required or expected to wear skirts and dresses as part of their school uniform,” the report said.

The lead researcher has called on schools to consider the design of uniforms to ensure they do not “restrict” opportunities for physical activity.

Overall, the median proportion of pupils meeting the WHO recommendations in countries where a majority of schools used uniforms was 16%, compared to 19.5% in countries where uniforms were less common, the study found.

The findings, published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, do not definitively prove that uniforms limit children’s physical activity and the researchers said “causation cannot be inferred”.

But the paper said: “School uniform policies, common in many countries, may be restricting students’ physical activity within and beyond the school day.”

Senior author Dr Esther van Sluijs, investigator at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: “Girls might feel less confident about doing things like cartwheels and tumbles in the playground, or riding a bike on a windy day, if they are wearing a skirt or dress.

“Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problem.”

Dr Mairead Ryan, a researcher at the Faculty of Education and MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “School communities could consider design, and whether specific characteristics of a uniform might either encourage or restrict any opportunities for physical activity across the day.”

She added: “We now need more information to build on these findings, considering factors like how long students wear their uniforms for after school, whether this varies depending on their background, and how broader gendered clothing norms may impact their activity.”

Sarah Hannafin, head of policy at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Physical activity, PE and sport are an important part of the school day and curriculum for pupils.

“Schools do much to help ensure all pupils are healthy and physically active and break down barriers to participation, including among girls – and this includes considering the uniform choices available for children.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Schools have uniform policies in order to provide a sense of identity and equality for pupils.

“These policies are kept under review and this study is a reminder of the need to consider suitability and comfort alongside other factors such as cost to parents.

“Uniforms are designed to enhance school pride and unity and it is obviously important that they do not act as a barrier to physical activity or any other aspect of education.”