DSC00940aThere is an interesting post dealing with aspects of school uniform on the Disappointed Idealist blog. I like it because it speaks common sense but also has a good bash at the more fascist elements of those who favour school uniforms. The author, a recently retired teacher whose blog is always worth a read (read his excellent advice for parents on how to approach secondary school parents’ evenings!), holds no candle for uniforms one way or the other, but takes a reasoned hatchet to the various more specious arguments, the economic one amongst them, postulated for their continuation or discontinuation.

DSC00982-1All of this came to my interest yesterday as I visited our Year 6 children at Quinta, in darkest Shropshire, and had something of a revelation about just what beautiful and interesting individuals our children are when they are out of school uniform. Girls who looked ordinary and ill at ease in school uniform had a beauty about them when able to choose their own clothes and wear them with freedom. Boys who looked cramped in school uniform had a swagger and a self-awareness in clothes that they had chosen. Suddenly, from nowhere, they looked more individual, more assured in their own identity rather than that of the school, and they had a fullness of the image of God in them that was far broader and richer than anything I had ever seen before. The school uniform had not just minimised their differences – it had negated their individuality, to a much greater extent than I had realised. Children seemed suddenly less well known by the staff yesterday. There seemed, in each child, to be more to know.

It was as though the uniform had turned them into schoolthings and not children, narrowing the field of view and blurring the lens through which we see them everyday. These were, to be honest, amazing children, a cause for worship at God’s creative power and range of expression. I had never seen as clearly as I did yesterday, what it means that children are image-bearers of God. I found myself noticing them.

These Y6 children at Quinta were the most powerful theological argument for abandoning school uniform I have encountered. I may not even have thought there was a theology of school uniform, but there is. There is a theology of everything, of course. It made me reconsider again exactly what it is that school uniform robs children of. It also made me question whether the conformity we see and the values in which that is expressed, and the sense of oneness that uniform is supposed to bring, are real, or simply a layer on top of complex personalities. Uniform, it seems, hides things.

Does the adoption of uniform, for instance, mean that we treat the character development of each child with a genuine interest in their welfare, or simply for the common (i.e. school) good? It seemed to me that there was work you could do in encouraging a depth of understanding of and care for one another when children were not in school uniform that would be wholly different if done with children in uniform. And at the root of that was a sense of a wider gulf between us as teachers and them as children than we have at school.

Children attending school, but not dressed in uniform, retain and express that individuality and personhood (and distance) even whilst they are engaged in school tasks and learning, and bring to that learning the vertices of character that the clothing may express. Children who are in uniform have sacrificed some of that individual expression already in order to make life easier for adults. It will, undoubtedly, affect their view of themselves, and that will, undoubtedly, affect their learning.

We have just completed an interesting survey of staff, children and parents about the current state and possible future development of school uniform. Parents and staff were predictably pro (because adults generally – and rightly – appreciate the status quo, and the well-rehearsed arguments for it). Children were generally anti (because they see it as an imposition from the adult world – which it is, of course, though no less honourably meant for all that). The full result of the School Uniform Survey is here. Some of the comments from parents are wonderful – and wonderfully contradictory, as you would expect. Over 400 voices are represented in this survey – and governors have instructed me to go back and identify the 4 or 5 areas of genuine debate amongst respondents and bring them to our meeting in November so we can formulate a policy properly.

But in my personal capacity, not in any way connected to the policy of the school, perhaps I should declare an interest.

I dislike school uniform. If it was so great, I am sure that the US and Europe would have cottoned on to that by now, but they haven’t. Europeans and Americans do wear uniform sometimes – to distinguish themselves from the enemy in battle. To me, uniform restricts freedom of expression and culture, and militates against effective learning. I know all the “equality” arguments, and disagree with them all, I’m afraid. They do not convince me for one second. I wore school uniform of various colours during my education and can still feel the horrid roughness of grey shirts on my neck. I have seen no data anywhere that school uniform improves educational attainment or achievement. Perhaps it may improve attendance in areas where attendance is a problem, and of course we know that the more that children are in school, the more opportunity they may have to learn, but there are counter arguments as well. A school I know in Bristol who never had uniform has now, following a poor inspection outcome, decided to get a uniform for its children. There is no evidence that improvements at the school were uniform-based. Robert Peston has recently taken a pop at the BBC for criticisms suggesting he is better at interviewing when he is wearing a tie. That is a different issue, actually, and more to do with respect for an occasion. I wear a tie at an interview or wedding, but not for work, because it just gets in the way. I wear a school uniform top if I am going to get messy in art club or will be working with children in some other manner detrimental to the safe conduct of a white shirt.

I suppose it boils down to this. Why change a system we have for the sake of change? If we have a system, should we “allow” it or “enforce” it? If we erect a uniform policy that we seem to want to defend, should we therefore make it compulsory, giving children one more thing to rebel against as they grow up? And if we make it compulsory, what need (real or imagined) are we actually serving, and whose need is it?

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

5 responses »

  1. Huw, it’s a ridiculous length of time since I last commented on your blog, but this one touched a raw nerve for me. Both our children are now at secondary school (Years 8 and 7). When we first knew the school was strict on uniform, we were pleased, because we thought it would protect our children, being of more modest income than most people here in Surrey. Then we discovered the frightening cost of the uniform, much of which could otherwise have been sourced from M&S or similar, had the school not insisted on certain distinguishing features that meant everything was only available from one exclusive supplier. Forgive me for asking this, but do schools get a kickback from these suppliers? £200 per child, and we’re *only* talking about a state comprehensive school.

    Then I’m becoming more concerned about the uniform requirements for girls. Blouse and tie (and, OK, a skirt). Are we subconsciously telling them that the way to get on in life is to look like a man? Too many secondary school uniforms for girls are garishly reminiscent of the Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppet.

    I’d be curious to know your views on these observations.

    • Dave, good to see you again here! It is always salutary to see the “economic argument” (namely that school uniform is cheap and a great leveller, helping children not to discriminate against one another – as though they don’t have enough reasons to do that already) trashed by the fact that actually, pricing of uniform actually favours the rich. We work hard as a school to isolate those items of clothing that only we will provide (and then buy them in massive bulk to keep costs sensible for parents), and the cheap things they can source from Primark or Tescos or somewhere equally egalitarian. That then leaves shoes, which are not cheap anywhere, and where, generally, you get the quality you pay for.

      We don’t get a kickback, and in fact, my understanding is that schools are not allowed to turn a profit on uniform. Certainly my governors are very hot on ensuring that we provide things at cost. Can’t speak for academies. There is some Department guidance on this at
      https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/269113/school_uniform_guidance_2013.pdf
      which is one of the more sensible bits of guidance coming from the era of Gove.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Caroline says:

    With regards to the “cost issue” I would like to say the following. School uniform IS cost efficient. I have two daughters. I purchase for each them 2 x skirts, 2 x trousers 2 x culottes (the younger one) this costs me approx £30 per child. At CtS I purchase 3 x tops and 2 x cardigans. (Wash and wear during the week). For senior school child 6 x blouses 1 x blazer. Then 1 x PE kit for each child. However, this lasts my children a YEAR!

    I know other people who refuse to buy logo items claiming they are purchasing “better quality” but then have to buy new each term, because they are worn out!

    My children’s “out of school clothes” cost me approx £20 for 1 dress, £10- £15 for 1 skirt, £10 for 1 top. School uniform is much cheaper, harder wearing and IS fit for purpose.

    CtS supplied items easily outstrips M&S on quality. So compare the prices charged and it is excellent value for money.

    Also for the children in financial need there is the Govenors fund. If there was no uniform then the poorest children wouldn’t benefit from this and the clothes they do have would wear out faster, due to being worn more and it would cause greater economic hardship for these families.

    The “shoe element” I recall going into 6th form, with no school uniform, and suddenly the need for 1 pair of “school shoes” was minuscule with my need for10 pairs to match my different outfits!

    Even at £200 per child, this works out at just £5.00 per week (38 weeks) or £1.00 per day. Sorry but I think this represents excellent value.

    However, with regards to Huw’s comments about it stifling the children, this opens a whole new can of worms, of which I am yet to be convinced, but am intrigued!

  3. […] had on Friday. The liberation from school uniform was that significant. I have commented on this at length before, but had another conversation with a member of the school staff about this during the two art days […]

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