Unnecessary Uniform Policies Can Do More Harm Than Good

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With schools returning from their winter breaks, children up and down the country have embarked on another year of learning bedecked in a flurry of blazers, trousers/skirts, white shirts/blouses and (generally) garishly coloured ties. Some of the arguments for uniforms are quite good on the surface: uniformity provides fewer distractions and provokes less discussion; children wearing identical clothes can help create a sense of unity and identity which (in theory) leads to feelings of belonging and reduces bullying; and it prepares students for the world of work.

Some of the practices schools employ to enforce uniform, however, seem to undermine the argument that these are the principles which underlie the need for uniform.

Students having a slightly different colour of jacket or trouser/skirt than other students will not provide a distraction or provoke a discussion at school, it won’t reduce a sense of collective identity, and it doesn’t make them any less prepared for the world of work – where workers who wear suits simply have to look smart, rather than a specific kind of smart. Likewise, plain black shoes are plain black shoes. The brand or exact style of shoe shouldn’t matter, merely whether or not it is comfortable and whether it impacts upon the education of others. Trying to argue that someone wearing a style of black shoe that looks a bit like a trainer impacts upon others is ridiculous – unless you point it out, most people simply won’t notice it. Yet these are some of the infractions that get punished on a day-to-day basis in schools up and down the country.

It often seems that, rather than enforcing uniform because it has educational benefits, schools enforce it because it is the uniform. This is exemplified by the reluctance of some schools to allow boys to wear smart shorts during exceptionally hot weather, or the insistence that students must have permission to remove their jackets during school hours. The common sense answer would be to give flexibility to students about what they wear in these circumstances, so as to prevent them being distracted by excessive heat and suffering the educational disadvantages that come with it.

The excuse for enforcing uniform policy is usually something along the lines of ‘those are the rules’, which doesn’t really give any indication as to why those rules exist. Yes, there are potential advantages to uniform, but if you are excluding students or singling them out for wearing something that could reasonably be interpreted as part of the uniform, then a school is harming a student’s education for the sake of some authoritarian enforcement of rules.

Given how strongly schools enforce uniform, you would imagine there is plenty of cast-iron evidence that wearing uniform makes children perform and behave better, right? But the simple fact is that the few studies that have been done have proven inconclusive (see here or here, for example). There is no clear evidence that schools with strict uniform policies are any better than those without them.

Authoritarian enforcement of such policies on such limited evidence makes little logical sense. Excluding children, putting them under pressure to look perfect and thereby creating unnecessary stress and anxiety alongside forcing them to wear impractically warm clothing on hot days has a clear impact on a student’s education. Without providing evidence that students with bad uniform, or even marginally different uniform, are disruptive or have other negative impacts on their school, enforcing uniform policies in an authoritarian manner seems unnecessarily draconian and negates whatever positive impact uniform might have in the first place.

Too often, schools are obsessed with their uniform policies being uniformly enforced, but the truth is that cutting students a little slack and allowing them a little bit more freedom (even within the parameters of uniform) would be much better than stubbornly enforcing outdated practices because ‘those are the rules’.

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