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The Problems And Potential Of School Uniforms

With so many important areas to bear in mind when we think about schools, apparent side issues don't always get the careful consideration they deserve. School uniform is one of those issues.

With so many important areas to bear in mind when we think about schools, apparent side issues don't always get the careful consideration they deserve. School uniform is one of those issues. We are not in the position of other educational systems around the world. In the U.K., they're an established part of school culture, but that should not mean that we take uniforms in their current format as a given. As in all other areas, innovative thinking could lead to improvements benefiting children's learning experiences.

School uniforms are said to encourage a sense of collective membership, helping young people value togetherness and democratic ideals of equality, promoting unity. Uniforms encourage social mobility since they reduce class differences between peers. There is no pressure to dress in a particular way and consequently one less reason for social exclusion. In practical terms, there are likely to be fewer incidents of lateness too given students can get dressed quickly in the morning. Then there are the imagined benefits for our children which have little empirical evidence to support them. We believe uniforms help improve discipline and academic performance, but it is likely the way schools enforce policies which teaches students important lessons about such matters.

So how can we make uniforms more beneficial to a child's learning experiences? One of the main purposes is to eliminate distraction and create a level playing field. However, some would argue uniforms don't do that when schools insist on girls wearing skirts. A practical concern is how restrictive skirts can be, given they prevent girls moving in certain ways. As Happel notes, 'wearers must negotiate how they sit, how they play, and how quickly they move. Skirt-wearing, consciously and unconsciously, imposes considerations of modesty and immodesty, in ways that trousers do not'. Yet many girls want to wear them and, in terms of temperature control, skirts can be preferable in summer. We must give the same level of consideration to boys' uniforms. They must be practical, a fact highlighted by reports in the summer term of boys having to wear trousers we consider suitable for the depths of winter on the hottest days of the year. Just as there should be no rigid insistence on girls having to wear skirts, neither should there be no alternative in hot weather to trousers for boys. There needs to be a sense of balance.

We need to take this further, thinking beyond offering uniform options and more about the service the uniform can provide in practical terms. The style of uniform matters. We might not have believed it was summer at the beginning of the holidays this year, but the end of the summer term was hot. Sun exposure can be reduced by the type of clothing we wear. Australian research has shown that minor alterations, such as extending the length of sleeves to the elbow and shorts to the knee can significantly reduce mole acquisition, as well as melanoma risk. At the other end of the year, should we not also consider whether school uniforms adequately meet the demands put upon them by seasonal differences? Are they really warm enough in winter? Students wearing the same uniform year-round suggests they are most suitable for a median temperature, not for the extremes of hot summers and cold winters. We might then consider whether school uniform policy should allow for, but due to costs, not insist on, separate winter and summer uniforms. This could disrupt the visual aesthetic of a whole school uniform, but the purpose of the uniform is to best meet the needs of the student and if particular fabrics better suited to particular weather conditions make students more comfortable, surely this is something we must consider.

How can we make uniforms more practical for parents and carers? It is important for the children themselves to have a sense of belonging and also for the community to know who they represent, but uniforms can be costly, particular for families with multiple children, perhaps attending different schools. Schools could make the process of procuring uniforms easier and cheaper by choosing particular colours to represent the school with a sew-on badge for identification, rather than an embroidered jumper or blazer only available from a single supplier. Shoes are also an issue. Some primary schools insist each student has two pairs; one for outdoor and one for indoor use. It is true that in schools abroad, particularly in Central and Northern Europe, students have indoor and outdoor shoes. Their indoor shoes tend to be little more than slippers, more comfortable around school for the children, preventative in terms of the amount of mud brought inside after wet break and less likely to cause wear and tear on carpets. This model has been adopted by some schools here. However, health and safety concerns in other schools, particularly in terms of the potential for students to slip over, has meant what seemed a good idea only really prevents a degree of dirt and is costly for parents and carers. Yet there are websites which offer the opportunity to buy and sell clothing children have outgrown and the website can provide information on possible help with uniform costs.

Internationally, scientists are researching whether or not impregnating uniform fabric with particular chemicals can better protect children from insect-transmitted diseases and considering whether schools could adapt uniforms to make them more cycle-friendly. This is the level of local innovation we should be engaging in to make sure our uniforms are right for our children. We're too frequently overlooking issues which appear to be obvious and settled, yet in reality, greater consideration could reap dividends for young people and their educational experience.