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.