School uniforms deny choice and are not proven to improve discipline.

Fiona Millar's picture
In response to Janet on uniforms here is an article I prepared earlier (in 2006 to be precise). I thought I would re-post it since it answers her question and, although I would defend an individual schools rights to choose whether to have a uniform or not, I haven't really changed my view

"It is almost thirty five years since my secondary school voted on whether to abolish our uniform.

The clear verdict to ditch the itchy tunic, purse belt, beret and, most liberating of all , the check summer dress  sticks in my mind as one of the most significant days of my school life.

Why? Was it the power being given to pupils to make a choice? Was it the transformational effect it had on the school as the girls blossomed into some of the most eclectically dressed and stylish in North London, (with no discernable negative effect on its results).

Or was it just a loathing of the dreary duplication of 700 girls in bottle green – a colour least likely to flatter even the most ravishing student.

Since then I have done the uniform thing on and off as a parent. With one child left in a rare non uniform secondary school, the letter home I most dread is the one that explains it is being brought back.

The government likes to talk about ridding our school system of the ‘deadening hand of uniformity’, but surely dressing every child identically in what are usually poorish quality, badly designed clothes while schools are supposed to be encouraging diversity is one of the most bizarre contradictions of the lot.

Uniforms supposedly breed pride in a school, stimulate good behaviour and raise standards. Yet most of the evidence to support these ‘theories’ is anecdotal.

What properly controlled research would probably show is that uniforms are introduced alongside improved leadership, better , more consistent behaviour management and higher aspirations, which are the real reason standards and behaviour change and pupils feel differently about their schools.

The idea that a uniform alone could achieve this is absurd and disproved by the fact that most of our continental neighbours manage achievement levels that outstrip ours without a uniform in sight.

Then there are the equally dubious equality arguments. Uniform is a great leveller apparently, apart from the fact that the average secondary school uniform costs £280 and the supply chain has become such a racket that the Office of Fair Trading has launched an investigation into it.

Maybe the OFT could also look into what support is available to poor families to meet this spiralling cost and then establish how many children  stay off school because they don’t have the required clothes?

In fact uniforms play a formidable but subtle role in the school hierarchy. The cost, often announced at the secondary transfer meeting, can act as a powerful deterrent to some parents while offering schools an effective tool of ‘self selection’

Uniforms of the so called ‘better’ schools are easily recognised investing status rather than equality into their wearers in the same way as the uniform of a poorly regarded school demonises its pupils.

Why else would the pre pubescent prep school pupils of South West London consent to walk the streets in corduroy knickerbockers and boaters if it weren’t to advertise they fact that they were in some way superior to their peers?

They aren’t necessarily easier for parents either. Early mornings are hell if you have washed and forgotten to dry a key item of clothing or lost it. It is simpler to change a t-shirt than conjure up a stripy tie from nowhere.

Enforcing them is a waste of teachers’ time. In his GCSE year one of my sons insisted on going to school every day in a red jumper rather than a black blazer. He was rarely challenged in what is otherwise a highly regarded and extremely popular school.

When I questioned a member of the senior management team about this, he explained apologetically that the staff had many more important things to nag the Year 11 boys about – where their coursework was for example. I couldn’t agree more but a poorly enforced uniform is much worse than no uniform at all as a symbol to the outside world.

A personalised school system would allow all young people to express their individuality through what they wear instead of trying to clone them into down market duplicates of the independent sector.

And parents – well if they really had ‘choice’ they would be able to opt their children out of wearing it."
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 19:01

My son's primary school has no uniform and I've noticed that it's really allowed him to forge his own identity because he can make his own choices about the persona he wants to project to the world.

Mary Costello's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 19:44

I did a study on this last year and findings about improved behaviour etc were down to perceptions. Interestingly, it appeared that most uniforms changed when a new headteacher came in, as much to do possibly with the headteacher's need to put their mark of authority/identity as well as the school and pupils having an identity.

Also, most mainland European countires do not have uniforms especially Nordic since warmth and practicality are the priority. Interestingly, this is what most pupils said was most important to them.

Sarah Marsh's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 19:52

Perhaps uniform creates hierarchy between schools but in my experience within them it really is a leveller. Both I and my mother were so pleased when my primary school opted to introduce uniform during my third year there. The small number of items needed was far more affordable than my clothing had been - only 1 outfit instead of at least 5 to last a week! When I got to high school we had two non-uniform days each year and several times I faked sickness on these days because when I attended not in uniform I'd be bullied for weeks after for 'being a scrubber'.

I personally always found uniform liberating (even at primary school where my own clothes didn't provoke bullying) and I believe it helps children understand that buying clothing or other 'stuff' isn't the only way to express your individuality.

Urban Head's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 20:21

I love em! Of course uniforms do nothing on their own and need to be cheap and cheerful and supported by a decent school hardship fund. However the early retired HT club (often called consultants or NCSL tutors) is littered with those who forgot that their liberal sensitivities are not shared by many of the parents and students in their schools. Uniform is an easy way to get closer to order as it taps into a shared tacit understanding about what a 'good school' is. Creating that shared understanding without uniform is harder when many students and families do not accept the authority and aspirations of school.

OMG I think I may have just agreed with Toby Young!

Warwick Cairns's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 23:07

Me too! They give a sense of pride and belonging, and parents love them. The more like Hogwarts, the better, I reckon.

Warwick Cairns's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 23:12

One more thing about uniform. This is from my book 'In Praise of Savagery:'

The costume is the outward form and signifier of how we see ourselves and of how we want others to see us. Or rather it’s more than that, or it’s other than that; and the act of wearing it makes you somehow more than you are, and other than you are; and for a while you become the living form of something bigger than you are, and more than you are, and which existed long before you were born and which will go on long after you are dust. Or something.
There was a British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who in his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, would turn up at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet wearing what was variously described by his aides as ‘working dress’ and as ‘a business suit’. All the other guests, meanwhile, arrived in formal white tie and tails, as the dress-code required. In doing this, Brown succeeded in wearing the most ostentatious costume in the room, a costume which said – depending on your point of view – ‘progressive, modern reformer’, or ‘dour, miserable killjoy puritan’, or else, in the words of the journalist Simon Heffer, ‘simply bloody rude’.
In the town where I now live, my wife and I once saw a party of schoolgirls looking very smart and striking, all dressed in long scarlet cloaks and wearing broad straw hats. A few years later, we took our eldest daughter, Alice – ten years old at the time – to the school to be interviewed by the headmistress, who had taken up her post at more or less the same time that we had first seen the girls. As we entered her office, Alice was wearing the winter uniform of her own primary school, a dark blue pinafore with a woollen coat and a felt hat.
‘My word!’ exclaimed the headmistress. ‘How very quaint!’
She crouched down to speak to Alice on her level.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you won’t have to worry about that sort of thing here, you know: we got rid of our hats years ago!’
And at about the same time, a man by the name of Mr Philip Collins, the director of something called the Social Market Foundation, published a pamphlet calling for an end to costumes and all other ‘outdated flummery’ in public life:

It is time we had an honours system that does not satirise itself… the whole bizarre panoply of OBEs, MBEs, CBEs, DCVOs, MVOs, GCBs, CHs, MNOGs and Yeomen Bed Goers should be put on the bonfire along with the vanity of those who care for such distinctions. We should abolish the titles of Sir and Dame into the bargain. Instead of all this nonsense we should establish a single award, the Order of Merit… awarded at a new democratic ceremony, performed at the House of Commons by the Speaker, dressed in clothes he would be happy to wear on public transport.

So, a bus driver’s uniform, then.
And perhaps the honours themselves might be dispensed from a form of ticket-machine which the Speaker wears on a strap about his neck.

Tanino Cinà's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 02:02

I agree with Ms. Millar, schools should be able to choose whether or not to mandate the donning of school uniforms. It could indeed be the case that schools uniforms have a benign effect on students but I'm not sure if depriving them of the individuality is a shrewd trade off.

Shane Rae's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 11:25

I think uniforms are fantastic, in primary education in particular. I have been a teacher in two countries (USA and Canada) where there was no uniform and also here in the UK at schools (both Indy and state) and I can say whole heatedly that they are a good thing for many reasons.

Firstly, they ARE a leveller. At the school where I am currently a governor we have arranged for the uniform to be so cheap that an entire day's outfit (shirt, jumper, trousers, socks) costs less than a pair of casual kids trousers from Debenhams. We also give a free jumper (the most ‘expensive’ part) to each child every year. Our Parents Association ‘run’ the uniform, including a used uniform exchange.

I have witnessed some of the nastiest behaviour from children on non-uni days where they callously mock others for not wearing the ‘right’ clothes or making references to how ‘poor’ they are etc. I saw plenty of this in North America where kids were allowed to wear ‘own clothes’ every day. Really repugnant behaviour.

In my years as an educator I can say categorically that children like looking smart in their uniforms and have great anxiety around wearing home clothes around their peers. Parents find uniform very convenient and extremely cost effective.

There are plenty of other reasons but these simple ones alone make it worthwhile.

It may be different in some secondary schools but I also spent 5 years as a secondary teacher and have experienced much the same as I have related for primary schools.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 13:26

School Uniform every time for me!. I have a friend with a 14 yr old son at a private boarding school , the uniform costs a fortune but he gets to wear his own clothes at the weekends and evenings.

They went shopping for civilian clothes for school and she was trying to dissuade him from switching from M and S t-shirts to Superdry/White Stuff. He pushed and pushed and got a single Superdry T-shirt. Two weeks later she was apalled at the clear sneering snobbery regarding clothes at his school ; one single t-shirt had made him visibly much happier stating .." I'm not a nerd anymore mum".

Rianna Baker's picture
Thu, 26/07/2012 - 11:22

I think not having a school uniform would make it easier to concerntrate and be confident in ourselves. I'm a secondary school student and my uniform is so itchy and uncomfortable. We have to have a shirt with our tie done all the way up which is horrible in itself, a huge, sweaty jumper and black bottoms which consist of a long skirt of baggy trousers. Also, we have no choice in what shoes we wear.
In my opinion, choosing what we wear would make us more independent, as long as what were wear is appropriate for our age, and with nothing offensive.
I think we should abolish uniforms altogether! It's so expensive (About £15-£20 for a jumper I think). I think it's good to look smart but it's more about actually being smart, and I've always found it easier to learn on non school uniform days.

BP's picture
Wed, 20/03/2013 - 21:54

Dear Fiona,
thanks for a very interesting article. I am now facing a unanimous but totally undemocratic decision by the governors of our primary school to bring in school uniform for the first time (in the school's 117 year history - at least as far back as I have been able to research).
They seem to be treating the issue as a branding exercise, to me it smells of 1984.
Are they legal implications of digging my heels in and refusing to dress my kids according to their grand vision?!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/03/2013 - 08:59

BP - you're correct. Uniform is a "branding exercise". Many high-performing school systems (eg Finland) don't have uniform. Many of the countries that the Government admires and sets up as examples don't have uniform (eg Sweden, USA). But England persists in this outmoded adherence to uniforms as a sign of discipline and a bastion against anarchy.

Have the parents been consulted on this? If not, then there might be some mileage in surveying opinion. However, if the majority of parents favour a school uniform and it was introduced then you would probably have no option but to comply. If a school has a uniform then your children could find themselves acting against the school's disciplinary code if they arrived out of uniform.

James Harlan's picture
Fri, 29/11/2013 - 06:55

I agree with you Janet, The students and parents opinion matters too. In our situation today where every amount matters (even how small it is), I think parents prefer not to spend for uniform if they have option.

On the contrary, students look smart in uniform. That's just the outside appearance though, which usually don't matter.

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