Are school uniforms beneficial?

One of the great advantages trumpeted about the school uniform is its capacity to make everyone equal. If all children have to wear the same uniform, the theory goes, discrimination based on socio-economic background, as signaled through, for instance, their brand of shoes or jacket, will disappear.

But is this really the case? Can uniforms actually exacerbate discrimination?

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Discrimination across schools

Even if we can assume that there are benefits at the level of the individual school, as long as different schools adopt different uniforms, discrimination across schools will still exist. Take the example of my home town. At the time of my attendance, both public high schools had rugby tops as their uniforms. Wearing a blue rugby top as opposed to a green one still identified a student as belonging to one particular school. And by association, it identified the student as coming from the kind of home zoned in its area.

Of course, in Australia the slight differences between two public school zones in a relatively equal society, however, pale in comparison to the differences between public and private schools. Private schools are much better funded than public by not only parental contributions, but government ones.

Again, to take the example of my home town, non-government school students on their way home from school or at inter-school events were immediately distinguishable from their public school peers. Both of the public schools in my area rank significantly below average on the Index of Community Socio-Economic Advantage. Unsurprisingly, the local Catholic school ranks above well average. These differences were made all the more visible through our uniforms.

Uniforms at inter-school competitions

As a student, I regularly participated in inter-school events. The sporting events weren’t too bad. Sure, the teams wore their school colours, but our appearance was relatively equal. For netball, we all wore a shirt the colour of our school, and a matching netball skirt. And so on. But when competing in academic pursuits – like debating or public speaking – the socioeconomic difference between our schools was literally showcased.

Students from my school would show up in our polo shirts and rugby tops. Two items of clothing designed for the sporting field rather than the field of debate. Our trousers? Denim jeans. I doubt I could create a more ‘working-class’ look if I tried. And we would compete against well turned-out private school students in blazers and ties, formal slacks, and shiny shoes.

Being judged – literally

I always wondered to what extent our appearance might have affected the judges’ perceptions of our performance. My team mates and I certainly tried to look our best. Our rugby tops were always freshly laundered. This was perhaps a mistake, when the school changed suppliers and the dye ran. Everyone rushed the local second-hand stores to get some of last years’ supply. We took at least as good care of our rugby tops, polo shirts, and jeans as we would have a ‘proper’ uniform. We ironed our blue collars.

But of course, the results could never compare. We were, by school mandate, dressed in the kind of casual clothing that would never be accepted in professional contexts were it not for the fact that it was our uniform. Our opponents, even before opening their mouths, looked like polished professionals. It’s not just that they had more money, better facilities, and far better teacher-student ratios than the public school students. It’s the fact that their membership of professional society was already evidenced through how they were dressed.

The judgement of others – and of ourselves

Perhaps the judges were those rare type of people who truly do not see class. Not even unconsciously. We certainly won our fair share of debates.

Perhaps we were the benefit of reverse-classism. Maybe our scrappy appearance endeared us to the judges.

Regardless of the extent to which our appearance may or may not have affected the judges’ and audience’s perception of our team, it certainly affected our perceptions of ourselves. I doubt our private school opponents got on the stage worrying they didn’t look as good as us. Or that the buttons on their shoddily-manufactured rugby tops would pop off. Or that the bright stage lights would shine through their thinly woven polo shirts.

Eventually, my team mates and I discovered some old blazers the school had held on to since my mother’s day. (This proves that a professional appearance and public schooling does not have to be mutually exclusive.) We even tracked down a store still selling what used to be the school tie. For the first time, learned what it was like to dress up and appear on stage feeling somewhat equal. Even if it was in a musty, moth-eaten old uniform.

Discrimination within schools

After completing my secondary schooling, I spent a year at a high school in Japan. After my experiences in Australia, I really looked forward to having a proper shirt and blazer style uniform in Japan, which I knew had much more formal school uniforms. Imagine my surprise when I was assigned to an all-girls school with a sailor suit as its uniform!

Despite my initial reservations, given the often unwanted connotations of a sailor uniform in Japan (having become associated with a schoolgirl fetish), I soon got used to wearing a uniform more strictly enforced than in my home town.

Not only did our skirts have to be not too short, they couldn’t be too long either. Exactly the same as everyone else was the rule. Socks did not only have to be white, but had to be a set number of centimeters long, and were forbidden to slouch. (Girls would use a product called ‘sock glue’ to ensure their socks stayed up).

And rules went beyond mandating clothing, extending to personal appearance as well. Students could not have coloured or permed hair. In Japan, a largely (although not entirely) homogeneous country, uniform inspections included not only the measurement of skirts and other attributes, but the comparison of students’ hair to a piece of black card. As an exchange student, I was exempt. But any other student whose hair did not match the card was forced to have it dyed black. Even if their hair was naturally a browner shade. A naturally wavy Japanese friend of mine was even made to perm her hair straight at school.

Wealth manifest in other ways

Even with so many efforts to make everyone the same, I noticed wealth manifested in different ways. Although all students had the same school bags, they were allowed a decoration, and these ranged in value. While textbooks were all the same, some girls had fancy pencils. More expensive electric dictionaries. Better calculators. Nicer pencil cases, and so on. Wallets and cell phones were probably the biggest sites of comparison though, and at some schools in Japan, reports suggest a few girls actually engage in what is called ‘compensated dating’ or ‘援助交際‘ in order to obtain fancy purses and gadgets, to keep up with their classmates.

Why is this important?

1. Uniforms alone are insufficient to promote equality

First of all, while uniforms may help reduce (the appearance of) inequality at a particular school, they cannot stamp it out. Even with the strictest uniform, kids will still talk about what they got for Christmas. Where they went in the holidays. They will make comparisons. They’ll still know who has the latest video games at home. They’ll still see who is picked up by their parents in a fancy car. Or who has the bigger house when they go there to play.

This is not an argument in favour of abolishing uniforms, however. Rather, it is an argument in favour of emphasising equality through other means as well. Parents and teachers must ensure that kids learn money does not make you better or worse than anyone else. It needs to be explicitly taught, we cannot rely on uniforms alone to do this.

Further, schools and governments need to address the ways in which uniforms can exacerbate discrimination and perceptions of inequality across schools. While there is an argument to be made in favour of making uniforms affordable and easy to care for, it is also the case that clothing is more affordable now than ever before. If public schools in my mother’s day could have shirts and blouses, it should be even more possible now.

{A radical – and necessary – change}

Ultimately, all countries should do what the world leader in educational outcomes – Finland – has done. Among other initiatives, Finland has abolished the socioeconomic segregation of students by getting rid of private schools. (Anyone interested in the best school systems in the world should watch Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next‘, available on SBS).

In Finland, it is illegal to set up a school and charge tuition. So, as Michael Moore explains, rich parents have to send their kids to the same schools poor parents do.  As a result, the rich parents help fund improvements to the school that benefit everyone. And kids grow up making friends from diverse backgrounds.

2. You are what you wear

Secondly, I believe that what we wear influences how we feel about ourselves, and how we act.

If you’ve ever had to wear specific clothing for work, you’ll know what I mean. Consider how you feel when you get ready for work, or to go out to a social event. As you get ready, you start to get into the mindset of the kinds of behaviours associated with those clothes.

Putting on a shirt and tie, or a smart skirt and blouse, makes one feel professional. Putting on a comfy robe gets you into relaxation mode. Self-help guides like ‘Fly Lady‘ recognise the power of clothes to transform your mindset in their suggestions to get fully dressed each day in order to get things done.

In much the same way, I would argue that putting on a blazer and tie everyday prepares students mentally for academic study, while putting on a polo shirt or rugby top does the opposite. By choosing items of clothing designed for sporting pursuits instead of those associated with academic and business conduct, it is almost as if the school is encouraging roughhousing and horseplay in the classroom.

3. You become what you wear

And it’s not just how wearing a certain article of clothing all day makes students feel in the moment. It’s about what it says about their future possibilities.

We all recognise the importance of role play especially for young children. We recognise  the importance of expanding kids’ ambitions beyond the stereotypical gender roles of playing ‘mommies and daddies’ to other forms of play. As doctors, business owners, pilots, scientists, etc.

Yet somehow, it is acceptable in society to segregate children according to their parents’ capacity to pay school fees or to purchase homes in desirably-zoned areas. And we then stick them in uniforms that appear to symbolise their possibilities. We send the children of lawyers, bankers, managers, and other white-collar workers to school in white collars, and rest to school in blue collars. It’s hard to think of a more literal example of society reproducing class over generations.

And consider the advantage that being comfortable wearing professional attire will give the jobseeker. Who is more likely to be well-presented and feel comfortable at their first interview? Someone learning to tie a tie and shine their shoes for the first time, whose school uniform was joggers and jeans? Or someone who has worn a jacket and tie since they were four or five years old?

Formal clothes are not inherently better than informal ones. Nor is there any shame in blue-collar jobs (in fact, many these days are more highly paid!). But dressing up requires more resources and practice than dressing down. Not giving students access to these aspects of social capital reduces their opportunities.

4. The judgement of others

Finally, we must consider the perceptions of others. In a recent trip back to my hometown, I had the question of how others must have perceived me in my uniform partially answered.

Strolling through the recently redeveloped railway yards one afternoon, I came across a group of youths wearing dark hooded jumpers. My stomach lurched. My heart immediately started to beat a little faster. I changed how I was walking, to give them a wider berth.

My school, through my eyes

As I drew closer, however, I noticed the letters emblazoned across the back of their hoodies were not the initials of some gang roaming the railway yards. They were the initials of my alma matter.

Since I left high school fifteen years ago, the uniform has changed. And not, I would argue, for the better. Rather than swapping out the sports-inspired blue-collar garments for shirts and blazers, the school had apparently decided to introduce ‘hoodies’. An item of clothing so associated with thuggery, the word ‘hoodie’ itself is often used as a synonym for young hooligans.

hoodie noun informal

  1. a hooded sweatshirt

  2. a young person who wears a hooded sweatshirt, regarded by some as a potential hooligan’
    (Collins English Dictionary)

In West Brisbane, police even launched a ‘Hoodie Free Zone‘ initiative. After an increase in armed robberies by people in hoodies, police actively encouraged shopkeepers to ask those wearing hoodies to remove them. They handed out anti-hoodie stickers. Acting Superintendent Paul Scanlan said ‘By encouraging customers to remove their hoodies, retailers can minimse the risk of being a target’.

A decline in expectations

The school has gone from white-collared shirts with blazers, to blue-collared rugby tops, to no-collar hoodies. It has gone from the uniform of a professional white-collar worker, to the uniform of a blue-collar labourer, to the uniform of an unemployed thief. The slide in expectations of its students appears clear.

Of course, this is not to say that everyone who wears a hoodie is a thug.  In fact, somewhat paradoxically, hoodies are also associated with higher education. During my first year at uni, I had one with my university’s letters on it. But it was understood that this was a sweatshirt for jogging on  a cold day. Not something to wear when giving a class presentation or representing the institution.

In a town a six hour drive from the nearest university, where only 9% of the population has attended university (less than half the state average of 19%, and the national average of 22%), I would argue that the ‘unemployed thug’ stereotype is the more familiar one. Indeed, you are over three times more likely to be unemployed in my hometown than you are to be currently attending university. And online searches for planned upgrades and increased funding to my old school returned more results relating to the expansion of the local prison.

Hoodies

This is what my high school has chosen as its uniform.  A piece of clothing so associated with illegal activity that not only do urban dictionary definitions speculate that it is designed to hide drugs, but that the police in some areas enforce ‘hoodie free zones’.

And, I’m ashamed to say, I judged those boys, wearing their dark hoodies in the railway yard, who were doing nothing more than walking home from school, gathering some fallen fruit from a public tree along the way, talking about class.

What are your thoughts on, and experiences, of school uniforms? Let me know in the comments below.

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