The school uniform has a fairly short and somewhat chequered history. For all practical purposes, school uniforms as we know them today have their roots in the British public school system. For the sake of clarity, a British public school is equivalent to an American private school, and an American public school is equivalent to a British State school.
Up until the middle part of the 19th century, British public schools were the preserve of a wealthy elite, the later mandarins of the British Empire. Nevertheless, they were quite disorderly, with students behaving much as they wished. Uniform began to be introduced as a means of instilling a greater degree of discipline and team spirit, and rapidly gained acceptance within the public school system. Quite remarkably some of these uniforms still remain relatively unchanged today.
As is often the case, the middle classes – who would by tradition have sent their children to smaller, less exclusive, but still privately funded schools began to take up the fashion for school uniforms which had been adopted by their erstwhile social betters. In 1870, the Education Act made schooling for all compulsory for all in Britain, and many of the new state schools naturally adopted the sort of uniform policies which had been so eagerly embraced in the private system.
From that time, right through until the 1960’s school uniform was practically universal in the United Kingdom.
The American experience is something of a contrast. School uniform (except in Catholic or parochial schools) was virtually unknown. Many schools had dress codes, which were exclusive rather than prescriptive. Blue jeans and high heels, for example might be banned, but pupils were not told what they must wear.
This is exactly the system that our proponent of school uniforms described as being started in her school at South Houston in the late 1950’s, and to which she ascribes a subsequent significant improvement in discipline and grades.
In 1996, President Clinton instructed the then Secretary for Education Richard W Riley to send a Manual on School Uniforms to every School District in the country. The manual set out the Government’s position, creating guidelines for all schools on which they could model their uniform requirements. The Government view was that the adoption of school uniform would reduce violence and indiscipline in schools, but did not go as far as making uniform mandatory, the decision being left to individual school districts.
The view of the Government was clearly not shared by parents, pupils or the school districts’ administrators. By 1998, only 11% of Public Elementary Schools had adopted a uniform policy, and by 2000, that figure had only increased to 15.5%.
The decisions to adopt uniform were not consistent across the country.
Suburban schools had a relatively lower rate of uptake, perhaps reflecting the efforts of a more highly politicised group of parents.
The proponents on either side of the debate about school appear to have entrenched and almost polar opposite opinions, and there is a fog of statistics and counter-statistics available to support either proposition.
Are they in fact beneficial in improving discipline and motivation_ I believe so, and the experience at South Houston suggests that I am right!
The staff reported a considerable decrease in violence and indiscipline, and an average across the board increase of two grades in academic performance by the end of the year within which a uniform policy was introduced. Could it just be co-incidence? It seems hardly likely.
There is no doubt that when a school adopts a uniform policy, it is sending a clear and unequivocal message to parents and students alike. It is saying that this is an inclusive organisation where everyone is seen to be equal, and will be treated as such. School is about learning, not about showing off or scoring fashion points.
Some people would have us believe that children hate uniforms -indeed, many children will say so themselves, but the facts belie this opinion. Children, when they join an organisation with a uniform, just can’t wait to get into it.
Most of us have an innate need to belong, to feel part of a group, to feel accepted and understood by our peers, and if possible to have their admiration and respect. This does not just apply to children; it applies to the members of your local chapter of Hell’s Angels aware.
Of course, one of the obvious marks of a discrete group is its uniform.
When you provide a child with a uniform, you are giving him an instant key to acceptance within a group, the chance to belong to it and feel part of it.
Those who oppose uniform will say that by putting a child into uniform, you are taking away his constitutional right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, isn’t it interesting to note that left to themselves, children will to a greater or lesser degree choose a uniform of their own. These may not be identical in detail, but just look at any group of youngsters, and what do you see? Brand X shoes, Brand Y jeans, baseball hat on backwards – or droopy pants! So much for free expression!
According to Warren, “With over thirty years of decline in a basic understanding of, and standard for, what is acceptable in polite society, though, school uniforms may be what are required to try to restore to our kids some sense of dignity, self-respect, respect for education, and awareness of what’s appropriate where.” 1
The design of a uniform can be such that it does not preclude the expression of individuality by permitting the low key use of buttons and badges.
Furthermore, if students clearly see that they cannot express their individuality through wearing extreme styles of clothing, they are much more liable to try to do so through their achievements.
The wearing of uniform and identification with the group has some other subtle benefits which have been cleverly exploited by the military for centuries. Primarily, group membership and wearing of the uniform bring with them a sense of loyalty to the group. It is unacceptable to let the group down, or to bring it into disrepute. The same spirit that works in the infantry squad works in the classroom too – “together we can do it!”
It is curious therefore that many of those who prize individuality so highly fail to notice this highly observable phenomenon, without which our armed forces would be worse than useless.
A significant part of the psychology of group membership and identity is the feeling of security that comes from not being identifiably strange or ‘different’.
It is well understood that in society and in school, the child who is ‘different’ is the one who is picked on, harassed or bullied. A well designed school uniform removes at least some of the visible signs of ‘difference’ immediately.
The Fort Wayne School Year says “Uniforms, with all students looking the same, can instill a sense of school togetherness. Just as a uniform solidifies a sports team or public service providers, such as police officers, it provides a link to others in your school community. That can make you feel like you’re part of a bigger picture, rather than standing out in a big school.” 2
There is also economic advantage to be gained from a uniform policy. Where a policy is in place, there is no longer the pressure on the parent to by the latest fad footwear for example, or whatever the accessory of the moment might be. For the pupil, the likelihood of being perceived as poor, or having unsuccessful parents is obviated, and the associated stigma avoided.
When the need to compete materially with fellow pupils is removed, the child’s mind is more likely to be focused on his education, achieving for himself and the group. In this situation once again, the interest of the individual is not totally subordinated to that of the group, but is integrated into it and enhanced by it.
A small but significant psychological benefit results from having a uniform policy – it removes the need for both parent and child to decide what to wear to school, whereby arguments, stress and anger can be avoided.
There is reason to believe that school uniforms can have an impact on safety in the school environment. Even at the most simplistic level, anyone who does not belong in the school can be quickly identified and checked out. Likewise, any students who ought to be in school but are wandering around the community instead are easily noted.
Most school uniforms are of such a design that it is much more difficult to secrete offensive weapons on the person, and this should result in a lower incidence of students trying to take weapons into school.
In the tragic events at Columbine, the killers (one of whom who had hidden a weapon under his trench coat) were heard to shout “Everyone with a white hat stand up” in an attempt to isolate sports team members as targets.
Many thefts and murders have been attributed to something as simple as envy over designer clothing, and an adequate uniform policy removes that risk at a stroke.
A safe education environment is inextricably linked to discipline and motivation. Students who feel safe are less likely to behave disruptively, are less likely to fear going to school, and have more energy to expend on their studies. School uniform, insofar as it contributes to a safer environment, has an important part to play.
The Principal of South Shore School, Seattle, is quoted as saying “Dr. John German, reports that “this year the demeanour in the school has improved 98 percent, truancy and tardies are down, and we have not had one reported incident of theft.” 3
One of the detractors of school uniforms has asked “Are we okay with losing even one child who may quit school if uniforms are mandated?”
One might ask in reply “Is it better to lose one child who may quit school, or seven or ten who may be killed because their dress was clearly and identifiably different?”
Good grade results demand close attention to schoolwork, and in class (at least for testosterone fueled young males) one of the biggest distractions is quite simply young females who are provocatively dressed. Excessively tight or excessively brief clothing on either gender is a distraction which a good school uniform policy can remove, with benefits to all concerned.
Some of those who oppose uniforms in schools suggest that designing and policing uniform policy detracts significantly from the time staff have to perform their teaching function. One of them goes so far as to say “creating and maintaining a new uniform policy would reduce the time spent on instructional improvement
and increase divisiveness, both among staff and between staff and students.”
The opposite is, in fact, the case. There is a time input into creating a policy, but the input to that task should involve parents, students and non academic staff as well as teachers. Once the policy is in place, teaching staff do not have to spend time being ´dress police´, deciding whether or not a skirt or a pair of baggy pants is too short, and then having to follow up on the counseling and disciplinary issues that may ensue.
More than ten years on from the US Governments initial attempt to promote school uniforms, the argument rages on. Both sides produce statistics to support their view.
Unfortunately most of the statistics available are flawed in one way or another ‘perhaps because the populations use to generate their results, or because of faults in the statistical method.
It has been suggested that there is “No clear evidence that uniforms had any significant impact on improving achievement, only scattered anecdotes.”
If these scattered anecdotes came from those in a position to monitor performance, they probably have some substance. Without resorting to pure statistics, let us for a moment consider the British experience. Although there are major cultural and demographic differences between the US and the UK, for the most part we share common aspirations and values, a common language and an ardent desire for our education systems to work well.
The fact is that public schools in the UK have had uniform policies in place for years. The incidence of murder, gang culture, drug use, violent crime, bullying and general indiscipline in UK schools is far lower than in our American schools, and the major difference in the systems is the prevalence of uniform policy. It just works.
1. Warren LH, “The Benefits of Mandatory School Uniforms”, p,3, retrieved 21 August 2009 from helium.com/items/382723-the-benefits-of-mandatory-school-uniforms?page=3
2. Fort Wayne School Administration “Fort Wayne School Year”. Retrieved on August 21 from fwnextweb1.fortwayne.com/adv/special/schoolyear/article0014.html
3. US Department of Education, February 1996. “Manual on School Uniforms”. Retrieved August 21, 2009 from ed.gov/updates/uniforms.html