Are school uniforms an overly authoritarian constriction on children`s identities? Straight jacks for their free self expression? Or are they a way of installing pride in pupils, and promoting the values of equality and inclusivity?
At both the schools I attended - primary and secondary - I was required to wear a uniform. In the sixth form we had to wear a suit every day, and whenever I see crowds of people wearing this formal attire (typically at weddings and funerals - happy and sad extremes) I am reminded of my last two years of my schooling.
As someone who was never attuned to the fashion scene, I was rather fortunate that my prosaic clothing style couldn`t be detected whilst at school. A uniform made everyone equal in this regard, preventing the formation of fashionable cliques of students, who had the money and stylistic acuity to seek out the most glamorous garments. Bullying can occur for all kinds of reasons - students wearing unfashionable clothing would certainly be targets. In America the vast majority of academic institutions lack a uniform, and while this may make TV dramas set in their schools look more colourful and interesting, it is also one of the reasons an estimated 160,000 children are absent from school each day, fearing belittlement and even violence from their peers. A school uniform protects students against this kind of peer pressure, while promoting the sense that they belong to a community, to an academic establishment. You can hardly bully someone for what they are wearing when you yourself are clad in the same attire.
It is believed that a school uniform reduces distractions in the classroom, and so promotes learning. It is a credible theory that if, from your vantage point in the class, you see students all dressed the same, instead of a panorama of different colourful outfits, you will be more focused on the teacher, and the lesson they are presenting.
While there are an abundance of empirical studies and theories concerning school uniforms, and their effectiveness in advancing education and establishing discipline, there is a single scholarly work that is most often cited. The Long Beach Unified School District was the first, and is to date the most comprehensive, study of school uniforms in schools. In 1994 the school district board voted to make uniforms mandatory in all elementary and district schools. Up to this point no large urban district throughout the whole United States had made the wearing of uniforms compulsory, so it was a major ruling. Just a few years after implementing the policy, the school district reported that attendance improved, suspensions dropped by nearly a third, vandalism fell, assaults dropped by two thirds, and examination results rose. So impressive were these results that the then President Bill Clinton mentioned the policy and its effectiveness in his 1996 State of the Union Address, which led many other districts to implement uniform policies in their schools. The president`s speech included the memorable line:
`If [a uniform policy] means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.`
It might not all be positive though - some parents have complained that their child`s school demands the uniforms are purchased from a specific supplier, which can prove expensive. This issue was addressed in late 2013, when the Liberal Democrats issued new guidance to allow parents to shop around for their child`s uniform. The Education Minister David Laws said that he wanted to put an end to profit sharing schemes that had existed for too long between certain schools and shops:
`We will send a strong signal to schools that it is vital to secure value for money for parents before changing or introducing new school uniforms. Parents need to be able to shop around to find the best deal.`
In the UK the Department for Education strongly recommends a uniform, but it is actually up to each school`s governing body. Christ Hospital School in London, back in 1552, is believed to be the first school to have pupils uniformly attired. The French actually discarded their school uniform policy in 1968, but it seems the swinging sixties didn`t have that effect on the UK establishment!