Why School Uniforms Don’t Work
We’re back for a Sunday Rant – and I’ve got a really good one for you!
I went to state school in the UK from the age of four years old. From day one of my first year, I wore a full uniform, including a button up blouse, a grey pinafore, a grey cardigan and a school tie. I remember being taught how to tie it properly by my father. For the next twelve years, almost every school day, I wore some sort of formal school uniform.
There are various myths about school uniform that parents, teachers and governors like to espouse to defend its use and mandatory status in the vast majority of UK state schools. A recent article in Time Magazine espoused some of these claims, for example that the uniforms are an equalising factor among school populations, that they provide protection against any bullying and harassment, and that they encourage school pride and high standards of dress.
All I can say is that those parents, teachers and governors either never had to wear a school uniform, or they had a very different experience of being forced into one than I did. I wore a uniform every day. When I wore it correctly I was mocked, ridiculed and harassed by my peers. When I transgressed I was given hassle and criticised by teachers who cared more about the badges on my tie than my straight A grades. No matter how I chose to wear the required clothing, I upset somebody and spent a significant amount of time feeling miserable. My uniform did not protect me from bullying of any sort, including unwanted sexualisation.
Within a decade I had returned to school as a trainee teacher and found that things had not changed for several of the students I was teaching, and if the morning view from my window of the teenagers on their way to the local school tells me anything, it’s that they still haven’t.
So let’s debunk the myths.
If everyone dresses the same, there will be no cause for bullying based on choice of clothing, as the uniform will conceal the social and economic status of the wearer.
Let’s break this one down shall we? If every man in the world had to wear a black suit for work, would they all look the same? Absolutely not. There’s always going to be a difference based on quality. That gulf between the off the peg black polyester suits from Walmart and the fine material used to make the haute couture suits favoured by Ralph Lauren or Yves Saint Laurent. The differences in school uniform are the same. Not every navy blue jumper is created equal. The quality of the material, the cut, the shape, the style.
Whilst it is true that some schools do have official stockists and regulate every article of clothing, there are a vast majority of schools who can do little more than regulate based on colour, cut and the outlawing of designed labels. Every high street department store and supermarket in the UK which stocks children’s clothing and young adult clothing boasts a school uniform range to suit every budget. The differences in quality can be seen easily after a cold and wet autumn term’s hard wear.
School uniforms encourage school pride and a high standard of personal appearance
There are some battles which are fought between school pupils and teachers every single day over standards of uniform. From wearing trainers instead of shoes, to unusual styles of hair or whether shirts should be tucked in at the waist or allowed to be untucked, teenagers will find myriad ways to flout conventions which are imposed upon them.
The most accurate depiction I have seen of a school uniform culture in mass media in recent times is that of Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school of witchcraft and wizardry. Let’s take a look at how our three heroes (Ron, Hermione and Harry) look in their first year at Hogwarts:
Here they’re smiling, sweet-natured and clean with jumpers neat, shirts tucked in and school ties neatly knotted. Let’s compare them here to how Ron and Harry look a few years later:
Oh dear… what happened?
Shirts hanging out, ties loose and collars askew, along with long untidy hair and grumpy expressions – more like the British school age teenagers we all know and love.
Even with the strictest of uniform regimens in a boarding school where pupils are monitored constantly, teenagers will find a way to bend and test the rules, especially when it comes to the most personal of all forms of expression, their visual appearance. For every rule we create which is intended to instill pride into someone, another person will take pride in breaking or flouting that rule.
School Uniforms make everyone look the same and remove the risk of bullying based on image
Forgetting the ludicrous notion that all teenagers, who come in the widest imaginable range of heights, weights and shapes, should look the same when dressed in the same outfit, there are many other ways in which appearances can lead to judgement. Particularly under these sorts of rules which limit the ways that people are allowed to express themselves visually, the remaining few options become extremely visible and cause for intense competition.
While schools, particularly secondary schools, might try to legislate in terms of jewellery, makeup, hairstyles, watches, mobile phones, bags, coats and shoes, in reality the policing of these rules is too much for the average school to handle. A primary school teacher who has the same thirty children under his or her charge all day might have more luck in monitoring and observing the appearance of their pupils and their modes of self-expression. For this age range, parent power is also more obviously in evidence.
This undergoes a massive shift when it comes to the secondary school age range. The priorities for a secondary state school’s focus of attention range from exam results to classroom discipline to league tables and reputation. The average teacher has enough to do planning, delivering and evaluating lessons, checking pupil progress, acting as a mentor and instructor and taking full part in the required range of extra school requirements, everything from breaktime duty to clubs and sports teams. They simply don’t have the time to check every face for a trace of lipstick, every finger for a ring and every bag for a mobile phone.
For some pupils, even if they do flout the rules and wear makeup or piercings or outlandish hairstyles, there may be reasons as to why a teacher will not pursue discipline. For the lower ability or less controllable child, it is often enough of a victory that they have turned up to class, sat down and produced a pencil. To add another battleground into the mix is often the end of any realistic chance of teaching an effective lesson, and so appearance related infractions are sometimes ignored. There is a great different between theory and practice when it comes to the enforcement of these rules.
There are also a multitude of other factors which cannot be legislated against which mark pupils out as different to each other. These might include:
- Choices of food at break or lunchtime
- The amount spent in a tuck shop
- The design or graffiti on a school bag, notebook or folder
- Socks – pulled up or slouched down
- The length of a skirt (which may change in the space of seconds between walking past a teacher and walking around the corner past a group of popular boys)
- Hair length and hair style – short, long, curly, straight, dyed, hair sprayed
- Nail style – long, short, bitten, plain, acrylic or decorated
None of these are necessarily an infraction, either explicit or implicit, against any school rule. But they can have a massive impact upon a pupil’s perception by others and treatment by their peers.
This is before we even get into things like cultural taste, friendships, relationships and personality, or factors like sexuality, body shape, body image, race or religion.
Making girls wear school uniform desexualises them and protects them from overt and unwanted sexual attention
With statistics showing that in one year there were 3,500 fixed period exclusions and 140 expulsions from schools in England for sexual misconduct – anything from explicit graffiti to serious sexual assault, even rape – the argument that school uniforms protect school girls from being sexualised wears very thin. The notion that a prescribed mode of dress will protect a woman from sexualisation and unwanted attention is ludicrous.
With companies such as Ann Summers and lovehoney.com marketing every type of costume from nurses, to business women to police officers, the popular career choices of women are more open to fetishisation than ever before. School uniform, as a prevalent mode of dress during the average teenager’s sexual awakening, is absolutely no different and is exploited just as much by the adult entertainment and sex industries.
If school uniform genuinely worked as a method of protecting girls from sexualisation, there would be no market for this sort of thing:
Ummmm… I don’t think that skirt meets the minimum length regulations…?
Puberty is a time of sexual awakening; a time when young boys and young girls become interested and attracted to the bodies of those around them. School uniform has become a sexualised mode of expression simply because it is what we are forcing our young people to wear for the vast majority of their independent social interaction during this period of their lives. First crushes, even first loves, happen within this social confine and the memory of how someone wore a school uniform can be just as potent as the memory of how they dressed away from school. In the case of unrequited or distant love, the chance of seeing the focus of their affection wearing anything other than school uniform could range slim to none. These emotions are intense and complicated, even at the innocent end of the scale.
Due to marketing and advertising industries’ obsessions with using sex as a publicity tool, and the focus on marketing adult products to an ever younger audience of teenagers and even, disturbingly, pre-teens, school pupils are becoming exposed to the idea of sexualisation at younger and younger ages. The fetishisation of school uniform costumes within the adult entertainment industry is proof positive of where this process leads – the fetishisation of childhood and pubescence.
If we wish to protect girls from sexualisation, the key is not controlling what they wear, but in tackling the rape culture which pervades our society and challenging the notion that a female body should be concealed as a form of protection. Forcing girls to wear school uniform will only make school uniform into a sexual fetish, rather than desexualising the young women trapped within it.
The argument that school uniforms will protect our children from bullying, victimisation and unwanted sexual attention has its roots in a deeply unsavoury place: that of victim shaming. The idea that if they want to be treated with respect, young people must dress in a particular way, is planted at this young age. License is given to blame those who break the rules as being responsible for their own ill-treatment, the idea that they were bringing it on themselves hangs heavy in the air.
Rather than trying to control the way our young people dress in order to protect from the unsavoury attitudes and actions of others, surely it would be better for us all to teach tolerance and acceptance and work to eradicate the idea that it is acceptable to treat some people badly due to their mode of dress, choices of food or the size of their bodies; that it is OK for us to victimise people who choose to express their individuality or deviate from an acceptable cultural norm. By enforcing school uniform as an ideal of control upon our young people when they are at their most vulnerable to other opinions and susceptible to ideas about behaviour, we are setting them up for a lifetime of paranoia and self policing, under pinned by the idea that they will be to blame if anything happens to them should they deviate from these regulations.
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