School uniforms may be barrier to physical activity among younger girls | Primary schools

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Restrictive uniforms could be preventing primary school pupils, especially girls, from being physically active, research suggests.

In countries where most schools require students to wear uniforms, fewer young people reach the World Health Organization’s minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of physical activity a day across a whole week, according to a study by University of Cambridge.

There was a greater difference between girls and boys of primary-school age in countries where uniforms were common. The finding was not replicated among children of secondary-school age.

This may be because of the incidental exercise that younger children get throughout the school day, for example, through running, climbing and active play at break and lunchtimes.

The findings confirm earlier evidence that girls feel less comfortable participating in active play if they are wearing certain types of clothing such as skirts or dresses.

Dr Mairead Ryan, a researcher at the faculty of education and MRC epidemiology unit at Cambridge, said: “Schools often prefer to use uniforms for various reasons. We are not trying to suggest a blanket ban on them, but to present new evidence to support decision-making. 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.”

The study, which was published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, drew on large-scale statistical evidence about the participation in physical activity of more than 1 million five- to-17-year-olds internationally, combined with newly collected data on how common school uniforms were in these countries.

The researchers said the results did not definitively prove that school uniforms limited children’s physical activity, but they noted that this had been indicated in previous, smaller studies, and that further research was needed to establish causation.

A 2021 study in England found that the design of girls’ PE uniforms deterred students from participation in certain activities, while the England hockey player Tess Howard has proposed redesigning gendered sports uniforms.

Other studies have suggested girls are more self-conscious about engaging in physical activity when wearing uniforms in which they do not feel comfortable.

Dr Esther van Sluijs, senior author and MRC investigator, 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.”

The WHO recommends young people get 60 minutes of at least moderate-intensity physical activity a day. The Cambridge study confirmed previous observations that most children and adolescents were not meeting this recommendation, especially girls, who have a gap of 7.6 percentage points with boys.

The median proportion of all students who met the recommendation in the three-quarters of countries where uniform-wearing was the norm was 16%. This rose to 19.5% in countries where uniforms were less common.

There was a consistent gender gap in physical activity levels, with boys 1.5 times more likely than girls to meet WHO recommendations across all ages. In countries where school uniforms were less common, the gap was 5.5 percentage points, while in those were uniforms were norm, the gap was 9.8 percentage points.

Sarah Hannafin, the head of policy at the 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.”

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