How Rigid Uniform Policies Discriminate Against SEND Students


School uniform causes sensory, physical and organisational challenges for many children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Students are increasingly getting sanctioned for breaching school uniform policies with some even being excluded. Making adaptations for individual students isn’t enough. Schools can become more inclusive by making rigid uniform policies more flexible to allow for choice and comfort.

What’s the problem?

Rigid school uniform policies particularly disadvantage children with SEND. What do I mean by rigid uniform policies? Examples of some secondary school uniform codes are:

  • Long sleeve shirt with all buttons fastened, including the top button
  • Having 9 stripes of a tie showing
  • Specific kinds of black trousers
  • Polyester blazers
  • Skirts of a certain length
  • Trousers not shorts
  • Branded coats

Primary schools tend to be more relaxed, but many will not tolerate long sleeves under polo shirts, or different textures of trousers or dresses if the polyester ones are too uncomfortable.

What are the disadvantages of strict uniform policies for children with SEND?

1. Sensory Sensitivities

Autistic children and those with DCD or ADHD often have tactile sensitivities which make certain types of clothing difficult or impossible to wear. These children often find seams, ties, labels and certain textures painful or distressing.

They have a few items of clothing that they feel comfortable in and often wear. Some children prefer to be naked at home, as they find any type of clothing uncomfortable.

For children with hyper-sensitivity to touch, any kind of uniform can pose a challenge. Things are made even worse because many schools have chosen uniform that resembles work wear with long-sleeved shirts with many buttons, polyester blazers, ties and skirts and trousers made from rough, itchy material.

It wasn’t until my own Autistic son started struggling with school uniform that I realised how disabling a uniform can be:

‘I hate it, I hate it, get it off me!’ he screamed. I quickly removed the T-shirt from my son and hugged him as he sat crying and shaking. He was so distressed by the collar of his school polo shirt that I sent him to school in a plain T-shirt. That was the last day he wore uniform.

We were lucky. His school agreed that he could wear his own clothes. If they had insisted on school uniform he wouldn’t have been able to attend school.

My son is far from alone in experiencing difficulties with clothing. Studies estimate that tactile sensitivity is very common in neurodivergent conditions such as Autism, ADHD and DCD (Dyspraxia). In fact, sensory processing difficulties are so common in Autistic children that it has been included as part of the diagnostic criteria. It can also be a standalone condition – a study of 925 neurotypical children found that 1 in 6 children were over-responsive to touch or sound.

2. Physical Challenges

Young people with co-ordination disorders often find laces, ties, buttons and zips difficult.

Trying to do up lots of small buttons demands fine motor skills and proprioceptive skills that many young people don’t have. Tying a tie and laces requires motor planning and sequencing, that is a challenge for children with Developmental Co-Ordination Disorder (Dyspraxia). Similarly, dealing with zips and trouser fastenings can be difficult for many.

This makes not only getting dressed in the morning difficult, but also using the toilet and changing for PE. Jogging bottoms, pull up trousers and t-shirts or polo shirts are much easier to manage.

3. Organisational Challenges

Students with organisational difficulties struggle to present themselves as required.

Many school policies demand that formal wear be worn neatly, with buttons done up to the top, shirts tucked in and ties at a certain length. For students who struggle with attention to detail, this is very challenging. As it is the demand of keeping track of many items of uniform and PE Kit.

In some schools, children are expected to wear different items of uniform according to whether they are representing the school or not on a formal occasion. This means students have to remember what clothing to wear when, on top of remembering which books and equipment to have for which lesson, homework deadline, transport arrangements, etc.

This is all cognitive load before any learning has actually taken place!

Why do schools insist on strict uniform policies?

Schools do not have to have a uniform. They can choose whether to have a uniform or not, and what the uniform is. It can be casual or formal.

However, the Department of Education encourages schools to do so, claiming that wearing a uniform can help with:

  • promoting the ethos of a school
  • providing a sense of belonging and identity
  • setting an appropriate tone for education

Similarly, supporters of school uniform argue that wearing a uniform helps children to feel that they belong and improves behaviour. However, a study of 6000 students found that wearing uniform didn’t make any difference to behaviour and in fact negatively affected students’ sense of belonging.

One school states that ‘wearing our school uniform as expected shows that a student is not only a member of our school community but proud to be so’. Is this true?

Does adhering to school policy indicate a student’s feelings about the school or does it just demonstrate that the child doesn’t have sensory, physical and organisational needs?

What is the impact of breaching uniform policies?

Many students are being punished for not complying with uniform policies. Sanctions vary from school to school, but a recent poll of 2000 parents found that:

  • 22% reported that their child had been given a detention for breaching uniform policy
  • 12% reported that their child had been placed in isolation
  • 7% reported that their child had been excluded for wearing the wrong shoes or clothing

It is shocking that schools would give the same sanctions for clothing infringements as they would for abuse, sexual misconduct, or racism.  

Teachers find themselves having to dish out sanctions for uniforms, time that according to one teacher, would be better spent building positive relationships with students.

Don’t schools make adaptions for individual students?

Schools should make reasonable adjustments to uniform policy for children with SEND. However, this rarely happens. Parents report that their neurodivergent children are being punished for uniform infractions.

Some parents have written how their child who experiences emotionally based school avoidance, and had been too anxious to attend school for several weeks, was put in isolation on the day they returned to school for wearing the wrong clothing.

Individual adaptation aren’t enough. Firstly, it is another thing that students and parents have to fight for.

Secondly, if an adaptation is made, it is not always communicated to the rest of the staff. I have heard stories of students being sanctioned for wearing a different item of clothing, even though that had been agreed.

Thirdly, young people are singled out as different, and this may affect their self esteem and sense of belonging.

Lastly, many students whose needs aren’t recognised, don’t have a diagnosis of a parent to advocate for them will miss out.

The Solution: Inclusive Uniform

Imagine how much better school could be for all students if they felt comfortable and confident in what they were wearing. If the focus could be on learning and character rather than if their shirt was tucked in correctly, or they had the right shade of top.

Imagine, if students experienced school as safe, positive places, rather than being anxious about being punished for uniform breaches.

Imagine if teachers could spend more time teaching and less time policing clothing.  

We don’t have to imagine. We can change school uniform policy to be more flexible and inclusive so additional physical, sensory, organisational and financial barriers don’t hinder students’ learning and well-being.

There are several solutions

The most radical would be to have no school uniform and let students wear their own clothing. This would mean that children with sensory or physical difficulties could wear clothes of choice that are comfortable and easy to manage.

The next option would be to choose clothing that is comfortable and casual. For example, make school uniform polo shirts, sweatshirts and tracksuits bottoms.

Or most conservatively, keep uniform but allow adaptions like the ones recommended by the Dyspraxia Foundation:

  • Allow t-shirt and polo shirts instead of shirts
  • Allow Velcro shoes instead of laces
  • Enable students to wear a range of textures
  • Give permission for students to wear a long-sleeved plain top underneath their T-shirt


Many schools have rigid school uniform policies that disadvantage children, particularly those with SEND. Having a more flexible uniform is more inclusive, allowing children to be comfortable, independent and able to focus on learning. It means that students are less likely to receive sanctions for breaching uniform policy, resulting in a more positive, happier environment.

Instead of making adaptations for individual students, that are hard to get, and then mark the students out as different, let’s make these changes for all students.

Speak to the Senior Leadership Team and School governors to advocate for change. Highlight guidance from the Department for Education which recommends that governors should consider how comfortable the uniform will be for students and the impact of the uniform on disabled students. Speak to parents and students about their experiences of the uniform policy at your school. Share this article with them.

This blog post is from a series of posts about school policies. You may also be interested in:

Why Attendance Awards Are A Bad Idea

Withholding Playtimes – A Sanction That Works?

School Toilet Policies – Why Some Students Can’t Just Go At Breaktimes