School Uniforms – the eternal debate - By Andy Cowle

It’s back to school, and so the subject of uniforms comes up once again. In the news recently  “Schools in England are being urged to keep the cost of school uniforms down, as many ‘rebrand’ themselves as academies.” It claims that more than half of England's secondary schools are now academies or in the process of becoming academies, and that the average cost is over £200 per secondary pupil to have all the necessary items – blazer, shirts, tie, trousers or skirts, socks, shoes, gym kit etc. It’s a little less for primary, but there’s still a cost. More than that, of course, it all adds fuel to the ongoing debate amongst parents and guardians as to whether we need uniforms at all.

If you look at the website for the Department of Education it will tell you that “While there is no legislation specific to school uniform, school uniforms have an important role to play in school life.” It goes on to say that school uniforms “can help improve behaviour and attendance. School uniforms help to define the ethos of a school and the standards expected. They help give pupils pride in their school and make them ambassadors for their school in a community.” Further guidelines strongly encourage schools to have uniforms, as a way of instilling discipline and pride, protecting pupils and supporting effective teaching and learning.”

In other words, over the last few decades, British society has become a more relaxed about uniforms in that each school can decide if they are compulsory or not. A modern acknowledgement, perhaps, of the rights of children to self-expression, or maybe a nod to political correctness and social liberty. But if you google ‘uniforms’ in any of the online British newspapers, you won’t have to search for long to see how much the debate goes on. Uniforms, good or bad? Uniforms, compulsory or not?

Some believe that uniforms unite pupils and makes them equal, eliminates negative peer judgement, and encourages both discipline and taking pride in one’s appearance. It also prepares them for the workplace where assumptions and even decisions can be made on how we dress. Others see uniforms as oppressive, old-fashioned, restrictive of the child’s creativity, and add an unnecessary extra cost to the household budget.

 I found an interesting short piece in The Guardian from a few years ago which argues against uniforms, and is followed by many comments from both sides of the discussion from pupils, ex-pupils, and teachers. It makes interesting reading, and provides a real snapshot of the stalemate that exists on the subject. As I read through them all, it struck me that the school uniform issue is a bit like one about religion or the monarchy – there’s no right or wrong, no-one will ever fully agree, and few will change their mind once they decide how they really feel about it.

I’m not sure I feel that strongly enough either way, at least not to write to newspapers or make any protests. However, my wife and I are happy to spend money on uniforms each year on our three children, and I do like the way our kids look. They look very smart, and they seem very proud of their appearance and of belonging to their school. The interesting thing is, I’ve never really heard any of them complain about wearing a uniform (though some would argue, like a religion, my children have already been conditioned and did not know any better, which is fair enough).

All I can say is that the primary school to which my youngest goes (and to which my older two also went), school uniform is not compulsory, and yet every child wears it. The parents choose it. And we are talking about a school in a very mixed area of a Glasgow suburb, where there are some very poor families. Make of this what you will.

If you’re thinking I’m pushing for uniforms, I can balance things by saying how aware I am of so many schools I’ve been to across Europe, where pupils seems perfectly happy and equal without uniforms. They look nice, too. Back in the mid ‘80s I taught for a year in a state secdonary school in Germany. It was the first time I had watched a full school year go by in another country, where all the kids dressed casually and in the way they must have dressed at home. They were lovely kids, polite, well-behaved (not always, but I can’t blame the lack of uniforms!), and decently dressed. To what extent there was any of this bullying over who has better, trendier or even more expensive clothes or not, I can’t tell. I somehow doubt it. It was 25 years ago, but I don’t think things have changed that much. And the reason I doubt it is my final thought on this old chestnut. A more worrying one. A modern British one. And it’s this:

Maybe Britain’s fascination with and preservation of the school uniform reflects the the class-conscious culture that we are, and our children’s obsession with bling, labels and status, more than we ever did, and maybe more than other cultures do. The British judge. We judge fast and we judge often. We judge by the audio-visual signals we encounter, of someone’s position in society. We can’t help it. We judge by how a person talks and how he or she looks. We judge on affluence or poverty. On ignorance or education. On where you come from, or where you might be going to. It’s an instinct. You can’t judge a book by its cover but we do it anyway. We wish we didn’t, but we do.

All I can say is this, and I say it to the kids and the parents these days who do go the uniform route or have to. If you you are going to wear a uniform, wear it well or not at all. When I was at school, you had to have your top-button done up and your tie tied up and never off – not unless it was very hot and you had permission to take it off. If you didn’t, you were in trouble, and that was about discipline and about the fact that a uniform can look somehow far worse than regular clothes if it’s just hanging off a child, undone, messed up and totally neglected. For some schools I pass from day to day around here, it seems that the uniform is complusory, but I can see that the kids are allowed to wear it any way they like, with blouses and shirts undone, ties tied around the waists, and scappy trainers on their feet not shoes. En masse they look a mess.

But what do I know? I’m almost fifty and I’m starting to sound like it. I haven’t fully engaged in school culture at grass roots level for almost 40 years. For sure, many things have changed over the decades on the uniform front but, clearly, kids haven’t. Whatever we make them wear, with whatever well-meant limits and guidance, they will challenge, rebel and express themselves anyway, in any way they can. Always have done, always will do. And, oddly enough, no matter how they dress, I find some comfort in that.

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