School uniform: much ado about nothing?

Susan Elkin

2553371 182x300 School uniform: much ado about nothing?What is it about the British and school uniform? Forcing children into corporate dress has, in my not inconsiderable experience, absolutely nothing to do with discipline, contrary to popular belief.

In fact, in many schools it creates more discipline problems than it solves. Teenagers, in particular will always push the boundaries of what’s acceptable.  It goes with the territory, if you’re, say, 14. If there’s a strict uniform policy in a school, teachers and other adults inevitably then have to spend valuable time dealing with the trivial uniform infringements when they could be, perhaps, helping students with work-related issues.

And the stricter the rules the worse it is. When I was Head of Upper School in a girl’s secondary school in Kent the Head Teacher introduced a rule that boots would not be worn indoors by pupils. So when is a boot not a boot and what do we mean by a shoe? Answer: a boot covers the ankle bone, a criterion which can only be established by getting down on your hands and knees in front of the alleged miscreant to check. I used to spend the first half an hour of most mornings making boot/shoe judgements relating to the queue of uniform infringers outside my office. Quite often one of them would ask me what all this had to do with her learning and progress at school. What was I supposed to say?

In another school I taught at, a uniform argument dragged on for months and the girl was disbarred from school. The head had outlawed earrings apart from studs measuring 15mm in diameter of less – and no, I’m not making this up. The girl in question wore slightly larger studs…and the school ended up making itself look publicly ridiculous.

As a journalist, I visited a school in the Midlands where the head had been assaulted by a parent earlier that morning. The police were involved and it was all very nasty. What had triggered the argument? A uniform infringement, of course, as so often distracts from important issues such as the anti-educational attitude of both parent and student in this particular case.

On the other hand I have visited several very orderly schools, in both state and private sectors, where there is no uniform and yet pupils and staff all seem to be constructively getting on with what they’re there for. Frensham Heights School, near Farnham in Surrey, is a good example.

Then there’s the matter of cost. In an attempt to make uniforms affordable, the government’s school admissions code decrees that uniforms must be ‘widely available in high street shops and other retail outlets, and internet suppliers rather than from an expensive sole supplier.’ But that doesn’t seem to stops schools devising impossible-to-buy-elsewhere uniforms such as ties in fancy colours, sweatshirts with logos or the purple blazers I saw worn recently by pupils in a London comprehensive school in a socio-economically deprived area.

And how on earth can schools justify insistence on fancy PE kits? All you need for any form of PE is a pair of cheap, pull-on shorts and a singlet or T shirt – you can probably sort it for under a fiver although for health and safety reasons the right footwear for the job probably needs more attention.

Yet Corfe Hills in Dorset – a state-run 13-18 comprehensive school –   seems to be getting away with a compulsory top, shorts and socks made by international brand Kukri Sports and costing £41 for boys and £34 for girls – with optional extras available for a further £50.

Whilst there is no evidence to suggest it is the case at Corfe Hills, some schools do deal with the companies which produce these kits so that they make a percentage profit on each sale. I’ve seen this in operation in many schools (the same thing happens in other areas too such as school photographs) and it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of pupil learning and progress in PE.

Less important perhaps, but still worth mentioning, is the matter of style. The British are some of the worst dressed people in the developed world. Many Brits habitually slop about in scruffy, ill judged grunge or strut in poorly chosen, badly fitting vulgar ‘best’ – to the incredulity of many overseas observers.

Could it be because most British children are denied the opportunity to develop guided dress sense and style when they’re young? 11 years or more forced into polyester trousers and some dreadful colour which makes you look like a cabbage or beetroot (there’s no such thing as a colour which works for everyone) does nothing for your burgeoning visual personality.

So I’d get rid of school uniform and substitute a dress code. It might include, for example, no very short skirts, low tops, bare middles, piercings (apart from ears), bare chests for boys and so on. And I’d negotiate and discuss these rules with pupils.

That is good training for life. There is a dress code wherever you go and polite, mature people who want to be accepted in the world have to be attuned to whether it’s OK to turn up at work in holey jeans (depends on the job, obviously) or to go to a Buckingham Palace garden party without a hat. Nothing in the whole school uniform obsession helps you to learn that.

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  • bobbellinhell

    You have identified with your oppressors.

  • Roger That

    In Japan the teachers even inspect the children`s fingernails. Its very civilised in the infant/junior schools; probably until the hormones get going. The country is very organised in many ways. Uniforms appear to work to make the school cohesive.

  • Roger That

    No harmony with you then. While you are at it, burn the national flag.

  • marcelwasserman

    The point of uniforms, are not dress code or discipline related.

    It is so that each kid gets a fair change at an equal childhood. Not all kids can afford the latest Nike sneakers and Diesel jackets. And an uniform spares them this ridicule.

  • Tor Ince

    My sixth form implemented a dress code (office wear with grey or burgundy tops and black skirts or trousers and black shoes; no bare legs, stomachs, cleavage or shoulders) that most students liked, though there were less around to complain; we could actually wear something that reflected that we were young adults and could dress ourselves, since we’d worn the same style of uniform (shiny, baggy polyester jumpers and polo shirts embroidered with the school’s logo, only available from one supplier) from reception to Year 11. I agree that uniforms take pressure off families and students, but ours wasn’t a good example of one.

  • Charlottey

    Don’t really understand why so many people think that British school children need uniforms in order to inculcate discipline whilst most other countries in the world don’t have school uniforms and turn out much better disciplined children than us Brits. For example, in Germany putting children in uniforms went out of fashion around 1945 and ever since then the behaviour of Germans (especially in other people’s countries) has actually improved greatly;)!

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