School uniform presents itself as promoting orderly, smartly-dressed pupils. School uniforms exist to promote equality, to treat all students fairly. No individual student can appear different to another in their attire, everyone wears the same clothing to place all on a level playing field. The problem is that school uniforms do not always achieve these aims in practice.
A strict uniform policy leaves little space to provide equity or accommodate those who may not be able to fulfil the uniforms rigid requirements. Some disabilities can make uniforms ill-suited or uncomfortable to wear. Schools’ gendered uniform policies can serve to make pupils uncomfortable with their instructed attire. School uniforms can undermine and belittle LGBTQIA communities. Even where the school does not insist on a gendered uniform in its policies, it is often unwritten amongst the peers of the playground, causing more distress to pupils.
Equity can be overlooked in other ways too such as insisting that everyone wear the same length skirt regardless of their height. Schools can fail to offer uniforms in plus-size ranges to fit all students. Uniforms can not adjust to weather conditions either, such as wearing trousers throughout hot summer months. Like the ongoing issue with police uniforms and standardised work wear, school uniforms tend to be based on a male model which leaves females wearing shirts that do not fit, flatter or accommodate their chests. Uniform policies can discriminate against race such as insisting hair be a certain length or banning certain hair colours or styles. Moving to a non-uniform model, or softening strict policies serves to remove these restrictions and encourage focus on what really matters; the learning and the experiences.
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to worrying about their own self image and issues around school uniform policies can heighten this. School uniforms’ disregard for fashion and renouncement of individuality can serve to enhance mental health problems and decrease self esteem. In contrast, non-uniform clothing could serve to raise confidence in young people’s appearance and acceptance to be themselves.
Whilst school uniform attempts to provide equality and limit overbearing displays of wealth, in practice it further divides the wealthy students from the poor pupils, making class divides more apparent. School uniforms are expensive, financially demanding upon parents and guardians. For some, it’s just another part of end-of-summer shopping, but for others it is a financial burden whose exacting standards are impossible to meet. The students whose adults cannot afford the official uniform necessary will often be penalised, excluded from their classes for failure to meet the schools rules for appropriate attire.
Uniform highlights class divides amongst peers: students with the wrong uniform become apparent, and those with well-worn, second hand uniforms can become targeted – causing increased bullying and prejudice. Everyday new non-uniform clothes are available cheaply, and mirror more expensive counterparts so cannot be detected as easily. Students are then less discriminated against, and the wealth gap less apparent.
The benefits to uniformity
School uniform does have its up-sides, and it would be remiss to not mention some of the positives. Every pupil wearing a uniform becomes a walking representative of that institution. The school appears united, orderly, smart and proud of their appearance. Uniforms serve to protect students, encouraging safety to and from school. Within school grounds, a uniform identifies who should and shouldn’t be there. It means appropriate attire is worn for activities: for example, you are ready to throw paint around or to run in the mud without ruining the child’s best clothes.
School uniforms take the need to decide what to wear each day away from the pupils, which can reduce pressure. It’s enough for a teenager trying to style their hair or makeup in an appropriate manner, let alone trying to decide on a full outfit for every day of the week.
There are pros and cons to having a school uniform. It isn’t black and white, right or wrong. It is important that the merits of the school uniforms do not get undercut by the systems that enforce uniform policies. Rules enforcing school uniforms must not be too rigid or too unattainable. These policies should be less prescriptive and less punishable. Uniform policies require common sense rule enforcement, more acceptance of nuances and needs for individuals.
Discrepancies in uniform accommodation need to be flexible and open across genders, LGBTQIA, disability, mental health, race, financial barriers, body positivity and self-esteem. This would better serve and protect children and young people. Learning, health and experiences need to come first – pupils’ attire last.