School Uniforms: Reinforcing Patriarchal Norms? by @LK_Pennington

The streets in Scotland are full of children in navy blue, black and grey school uniforms trudging or skipping back to school. This week, schools in England and Wales return: with children in school uniforms that are very clearly gendered with lovely pleated skirts for girls and polo shirts for boys. Considering the increased awareness of the harm caused by gendered stereotypes as seen in the campaigns Let Girls be Girls and Let Toys be Toys , why are school uniforms still embraced? Is there really a difference between Lelli Kelli selling sparkly shoes for girls that come with make-up and Clarks selling school shoes for girls that you can’t play sports in, as per their recent advertising campaign?

I’m always perplexed by the obsession with school uniforms and the questionable defence of forcing children to attend school in clothing that are simply not designed to be played in. School uniforms may have worked in the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when children were forced to sit in rows and learn by rote. Considering the amount of proof there is demonstrating that that is the least effective way of teaching, why on earth are we still obsessed with stuffing children in clothing which simply does not match current theories in childhood education?

Whenever I ask this question, there are two answers that always pop up: that children behave better in uniforms because they respect themselves and the educational environment and that it decreases bullying. I have yet to see evidence that supports either statement.

I have read studies which link increased performance of students in state exams to uniforms, but once you read the research it turns out that uniforms aren’t the only change in the school. Frequently, the implementation of uniforms follows a change in management or the discipline policy. These have actual measurable outcomes. Forcing six-year-olds to wear ties does not. The strictest uniform policy in the world will not compensate for poor management or poor teaching. Kids wearing jeans to a school where the staff and management respect one another and the children will do far better than children in ties in a school where staff are demoralised with poor management.

Many countries do not use school uniforms and have just as much good behaviour, bad behaviour and ‘results’ as schools in the UK. It must be noted that most schools will still have a uniform policy banning offensive t-shirts, non-existent skirts, branded sports clothing and, in certain areas, banning gang colours. You can have a dress code that requires children to be presentable that doesn’t involve cheap nylon pleated skirts or ties.

Let’s be honest here, a lot of school uniforms that are available are of poor quality, made by sweatshop labour and rip easily. It is more cost effective, especially for those on limited incomes, to buy a few pairs of jeans from Tesco or Asda that can be worn throughout the year, than it is to buy uniforms that are “seasonal”. This is without addressing the utter ridiculousness that is the price of school shoes or schools demanding children wear official uniform to gym class. Do children really play football better in shorts with the school logo on?

Another reason given for school uniforms is poverty; the theory being that if all the children are in the same outfit, then children won’t get bullied over clothing. Ten minutes in a school playground will demonstrate just how wrong this theory is. If your school has an expensive uniform available from only one shop, then parents on limited incomes will struggle to pay for it. Kids can also tell the difference between clothes from Tesco’s and clothes from John Lewis even in schools, which have generic cheap uniforms. They can tell the difference between boots bought from Clarks and knock-offs from ShoeZone. If they are bullied for clothing, they are just as likely to be bullied for wearing uniform as they are for wearing Tesco’s brand jeans.

This argument also fails to address the real issue of bullying. Bullies go after the weakest link. If it isn’t uniform, it will be something else. The problem is not that the children are dressed the same or not; the problem is that the school has a culture of bullying which is not being addressed effectively. That’s the definition of a bad school. Pretending that clothes will make it go away is naive and disrespectful to the children who are victimised by bullying. It makes them responsible for being bullied because they aren’t dressed appropriately rather than blaming the bullying on the school environment that allows bullying to continue without intervention.

Bullying is part of the patriarchal structure of our society, which sets up everyone in a hierarchy of importance. It marginalises any child who does not ‘fit’ the mould. In many ways, school uniforms are outward emblems of social control designed to make children ‘others’. If you think of the work which requires uniforms, most are of low status and equally low pay: jobs which are frequently performed by women.

Clothing is the outward signifier of respect: those in power require these to make a clear distinction between those with power who have value and those who have neither. As a society, we are reaping serious social damage due to our lack of respect for our children.

The conformity encouraged by school uniforms is about maintaining hierarchical social control. It is misogynistic as well as classist: setting out a clear difference between those who are important and those who are not important.

Fundamentally, school uniforms only serve to reinforce Patriarchal norms at the expense of our children’s education and their self-respect.

9 thoughts on “School Uniforms: Reinforcing Patriarchal Norms? by @LK_Pennington”

  1. And another thing: at secondary level, where uniforms have to be bought from monopoly outlets and involve stripes in a jumper or skirt, logos on shirts etc., you can tell the rich kids because their uniforms actually fit them, as they don’t need to last for 3 years – their parents can afford to replace them more often. Also they don’t smell – they have 4 or 5 shirts so laundry is more efficient and/ or they don’t have to wear a shirt 2 days running because there simply isn’t another one. At £25 per logoed shirt, it’s a big deal to buy more than 2 for most families, let alone one for every school day as you can do with cheaper generic polo shirts.

  2. I’ve noticed, as both a parent and a teacher who’s taught at many different schools (plus my kids have gone to several schools of differing bgs now) that uniform goes missing a LOT at schools where there are poorer children and considerably less at schools with richer kids. I don’t believe this is because kids have a worse “moral compass” when it comes to stealing, but simply because they often panic at the thought of telling their cash-starved parent they’ve lost their kit (as ALL kids are wont to do), so simply grab the one closest to them without a name label and tell themselves it’s theirs. Presumably, if there were no uniform this element would be eradicated. That said, I’m not against uniform per se – I actually judge schools by their uniform policy – ie. how strict it is, if they insist on it coming from a particular shop, etc … and the more LAX the uniform policy is, generally the more of a fan of the school I am. For instance, the WG’s school says there is no point buying expensive uniform and girls SHOULD wear trousers/ shorts/ leggings, esp if they like sports so they can move around easier. They also don’t care what shoes they wear, so my WG wears trainers in school colours so she can play football. When Ofsted is such a bunch of window-dressing arse (IMHO), I’ve found it a handy shortcut to judge where a school’s priorities are. :)

    1. I see so many young girls in “proper” shoes in playgrounds who can’t join in football or scramble around. Boys “school shoes”, from places like Clarks, are built for kids to play in whilst girls shoes are designed only to look pretty. We only do sneakers and did so at secondary school too. When it was brought up, I pointed out that I would care about uniform when they’s tackled bullying on campus. Strangely, it never came up again. I just sent them both in wearing basic black trainers (generally from the sketchers outlet store nearby) and left it at that.

      1. I find budget stores often have good unisex alternatives; the middling ones are the worst for “pretty useless” shoes! Shoes from places like Shoe Express don’t last much more than half a term, but are rarely more than between £7.99- £9.99 so at least poor families can buy them on an “as and when” basis, which is what I did when I was a single Mum. I also still bought Shoe Express shoes for my lad even when I was better off, simply cos the daft sod would lose them. How do you lose your actual shoes just walking to school, even on days when you don’t have PE?? Mind boggles! He’s 16 now and at college so can buy his own shoes if he wants fancy ones haha

        1. My eldest never lost anything at school and grew very slowly so a tenner for Sketchers from the outlet mall wasn’t a bad investment. I’ve never bought full price sketchers as they really are out of my budget. We buy Small’s from shoe zone because she grows so fast that she’s out of them in 3 months!

  3. I does not agree with the author’s views here.I think that Uniforms are still contemporary and useful as they instills discipline in the children and encourages the feeling of equality.

    1. Put it this way.
      Would you rather a teacher spends 15 minutes sorting out uniform issues, or 15 minutes teaching…
      I know which I think is a better use of time.

      For what it’s worth, I’ve taught in schools with a strict shirt and tie uniform, a polo shirt with smart trousers uniform, and no uniform.

      The best school was the one with no uniform, and barely any dress code, other than basic decency and t-shirts with profanity/other offence images. I had a better relationship with my pupils because I wasn’t spending the first part of every lesson nagging them about uniform issues.

  4. I went to a uniformed high school in the 90s. I also disagree that uniforms are bad. My school had a “uniform bank” that uniforms I outgrew were given to. None of the students who aquired their uniform this way were expected to last three years in it, and none were given uniforms that were tatty. Walking into a classroom, I could not tell the financial status of my class mate’s families.

    The uniform I wore in the 90s has changed since then… girls can wear trousers or shorts, and there’s a long skirt option for those who prefer that.

    When I saw shows set in non uniformed schools as a teen, and saw teens insulting each other over clothing labels, or worrying about what to wear to school… I was just glad I didn’t need to go through that.

    All schools need to do is remove the “girls” and “boys” headings from the dress code and let the students decide for themselves if they want to wear a skirt or shorts. That’s it.

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