School uniform – A great leveller or an instrument of power?

Photo of young teenaged girl wearing school uniform

Gordon Cairns looks at why the claims typically made for the benefits of school uniforms might serve to conceal a rather different aim…

Gordon Cairns
by Gordon Cairns

Like most people brought up in the UK, Dr Rachel Shanks’ views on school uniform formed when she had to wear one herself.

When starting at a sixth form college in Northern Ireland with a strict uniform policy, she needed to acquire a whole new wardrobe that was far more noticeable than the bland black and greys she’d needed to wear previously.

As she recalls, “A bright blue skirt, a jacket without a collar and a striped blue top, totally different from the rest of the uniform. I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about school uniform.”

She’s now a senior lecturer in education at the University of Aberdeen. And that ‘bit of a thing’ includes her concerns over how little today’s uniforms have progressed since her own school days.

This is despite the workplace dress codes that school uniforms were intended to replicate having become increasingly relaxed – the related cost and gender differences, and questions over who controls what clothing teenagers should wear to school.

Absence of proof

Dr Shanks recently authored a report, ‘School Uniform Policy in Scottish Schools, Control and Consent’. The findings could be equally applied to schools across the UK. After all, our almost universal adoption of uniform is at odds with most of Europe.

Dr Shanks and her co-authors analysed the school rules surrounding uniform at each of Scotland’s 357 publicly funded secondary schools. Almost all of them have a school uniform.

They found that while school uniforms are supposed to foster a sense of belonging and raise achievement, there’s little proof that they actually do.

The report also reviews some recent research which found no connection between the wearing of uniforms and academic success. There was also no link to improved attainment – reasons often given to justify their use.

In fact, the authors only cite one study as having made a positive connection between wearing uniform and improved attainment. It found that uniformed students settled in class five minutes earlier than those who who weren’t.

They didn’t remark upon whether this advantage was down to uniform alone or other factors. For example, a positive school ethos.

If there’s no evidence of uniforms creating a sense of belonging, making schools more secure or improving learning, why do so many schools and academies still ardently adhere to retaining a school dress code?

The wielding of power

One reason might be a desire on the part of senior leaders to control a fundamental aspect of the students’ lives. This is by policing what they wear.

One of the study’s authors, Jasper Friedrich, identified a tension between the practice of enforcing strict uniform policies through punitive measures, and the justifications for such practices that highlighted pupil wellbeing.

As Fridrich puts it, “While almost all policies include highly detailed regulations and strict enforcement measures, the justifications tend to focus on ‘soft’ values. For example, this might be creating a sense of belonging and giving pupils self-confidence.”

Dr Shanks believes that schools’ strict enforcement of dress codes – where, as she describes, “Every infraction is pounced on,” could be seen as a clear message to students and parents about who is in charge.

She argues that one reason why schools are so rigorous in their measuring of skirt lengths, or demands that students don’t come to school with their hair braided, is down to those in authority wielding power in the most visible, unsubtle manner possible.

In her view, “It’s not about uniform. It’s about saying who is in control. And this is saying the teachers are in control of everything that is to do with the young person while they are on the school premises.”

“It’s not about uniform. It’s about saying who is in control”

Moreover, when a school switches governance or appoints a new headteacher, the most visible way of showing such change is to redesign the clothes the school’s young people have to wear.

“Senior management sometimes use uniform as a signalling mechanism,” Dr Shanks notes. “The message is, ‘We have new management in, and we’re going to be strict on uniform.’”

Gendered differences in school uniform

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team’s report finds that schools’ dress codes are much more restrictive for female students than their male peers. They’re also often couched in frustratingly vague terms. For example, not stating the precise length a skirt has to be for it to be deemed ‘appropriate’.

As Dr Shanks points out, “Uniform is very gendered for girls and boys. Girls have to police themselves in terms of what they are wearing – even in the language used in the policies.

“‘A sense of decency’ or ‘a sense of modesty’ when thinking about what length skirts should be. Some even talked about not ‘causing offence’.

“Somehow, a girl’s skirt can cause offence. But the only time boys were talked about in the same manner was when boys couldn’t wear tight-fitting swimming trunks. Though that was in the policy of only one school.”

“Somehow, a girl’s skirt can cause offence”

Then there’s the anomaly of females still having to wear traditionally male items of clothing. “Why do we make girls wear ties? It’s very much thinking about the schoolboy, and trying to replicate that onto girls.”

Dr Shanks’ sense is that these draconian policies mean schools are missing the chance to collaborate more productively with their young people.

“This is a real opportunity to work with the young people about what they want to wear,” she says. “With what is comfortable and practical. Zero tolerance policies are negating the possibility of young people being involved in decisions about them.”

And yet, she still firmly believes that young people should continue to wear uniform. Just not in their current, typically traditional form. “There is a marked difference to what children wear to school in the UK and the rest of Europe.”

Equality and sustainability

Like many, Dr Shanks accepts that the wearing of school uniform is still necessary in this country, due to the gulf between rich and poor.

She points to a study carried out in the North East, which found that attendance rates would fall during non-uniform days, when young people went to school wearing their own clothes. Some did still attend, but in uniform, pretending they had ‘forgotten’ about the event.

She accepts that wearing uniform doesn’t create a completely level playing field. This is because students will still judge their peers by comparing jackets, bags and shoes.. But that they do at least help reduce the stigma of poverty.

Generic outfits

So what should school students wear?

Shanks recommends that schools introduce uniforms comprising durable, comfortable and affordable clothes that could have a school badge attached. And allowing parents to buy generic outfits from supermarkets, rather than more expensive selected school suppliers.

It could also be possible to make uniform items recyclable, thus preventing uniforms that have been outgrown from heading for landfill.

De-gendered clothing would further help to address equality issues around dress code and appearance. And in place of the bright blues and stripes of her youth, Dr Shanks suggests specifying clothes in dark colours that wouldn’t need to be washed as often.

She also suggests looking to the recent past for some instructive lessons on what the uniforms of the future could look like.

“During COVID, young people were at home in their pyjamas or sweatpants. They were comfortable in what they were wearing, and still perfectly capable of doing their schoolwork. So why do they have to wear tight-fitting, uncomfortable and unsuitable clothes now?”

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD; he also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications

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