I’ve never liked school uniforms. One of the things about sixth form that I looked forward to whilst I was doing my GCSEs was not having to wear one. I don’t miss the tent-like skirts, the oversized blazer that made me overheat, or the almost translucent shirts people could see my bra through. I would write with relish about how I despised them when my English teacher made it the topic of a creative writing exercise.
I hated it because I wanted to go to school with my outside reflecting my inside. Especially as I got older and was hit like a train by an emo phase, I needed and wanted more than two days in the week to express who I felt I was. My first secondary school had a thing for non-uniform days as an easy and cheap way of raising money for charity and those days felt comfortable and joyous.
It’s good for kids to feel that way. Their clothes can be a way in which they can find themselves and it’s normal and natural and healthy. Being forced into a school uniform for the most part denies them that. Even if they individualise it in tiny ways – rolling sleeves or skirts up, wristbands, badges inside of blazers – they are subsequently punished.
Is it really a free education when you have to spend a small fortune to clothe a child in the way the school wants?
As I’ve become more socially aware, I see more reasons to get rid of uniforms. For a start, they can be exorbitantly expensive – The Children’s Society estimated recently that the average cost of a school uniform is now £340. My first secondary school was ridiculously strict, as some schools can be; uniforms had to be bought from one dingy, claustrophobic shop in the town centre and only one style of each garment was allowed. It has been estimated that buying uniform in this way can push the cost of uniform up by as much as £93. This runs the risk of making uniform unaffordable for working class pupils- and there were plenty- although that school was in a more affluent area.
Even when schools are more flexible and allow parents to buy uniform from high street shops, it can still rack up quite a cost, especially for shoes, and blazers if one is required. It could help some families to have the freedom to buy uniform from wherever they choose, but for the most desperate, it still won’t be enough. It must be asked – is it really a free education when you have to spend a small fortune to clothe a child in the way their school demands?
Difference, so often a magnet for bullying, is not something uniform can erase
Supporters of school uniforms argue that they help to reduce bullying. However, research has found that, at best, they have no effect on reducing bullying and, at worst, could even provoke it. After all, even when children all wear the same clothes, they don’t quite look identical. There’ll be a child with a blazer far too big that might have been a hand-me-down from a sibling. There might be a child whose shoes are falling apart because their parents can’t afford new ones. There might be a girl who won’t roll up her skirt like her peers. There might be a bigger child unable to find uniform in their size. There might be a transgender child who is forced to wear a uniform style that doesn’t reflect their gender. Difference, so often a magnet for bullying, is not something a uniform can erase.
It’s not just the clothes themselves either. The whole concept of dress codes beyond uniform leads to further problems. Hairstyles are an example – unnatural hair colours are treated like they’re offensive when they are relatively harmless (and the idea that they are unprofessional is not one society should continue to uphold). Worse still, many Black students have reported being racially targeted for wearing their hair naturally or in traditional hairstyles such as Bantu knots or braids. In February this year, Ruby Williams won a payout of £8,500 after her parents sued her school for racial discrimination after she was sent home for having an afro.
Banning even discreet makeup, as some schools do, seems equally bizarre. A bit of foundation and mascara won’t cause any harm and it’s not exactly unprofessional when adults wear it to work all the time. Indeed, being sent to the toilet with a wet wipe is an exercise in humiliation that can dent a girl’s confidence for the rest of the day. It happened to someone I knew once – the girl who was targeted barely spoke in lessons thereafter.
It’s not enough of an offence to warrant keeping a child out of lessons
Likewise, schools frequently get over-authoritarian when it comes to uniform; it’s policed with an iron grip. It almost appears that schools care about appearance more than their precious exam results. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making sure people are smart and reminding students to tuck their shirts in, but too often it goes too far. Handing out detention or sending home a child for poor or wrong uniform is a punishment that is highly disproportionate to the crime. Again, it might not be something a child can help. It’s not enough of an offence to warrant keeping a child out of lessons and consequently damage their education for.
Very few countries still require children to wear school uniforms in most educational settings (some private schools abroad do have them). The UK has its own odd sense of exceptionalism regarding uniform and it doesn’t have a good reason for it. Uniforms should not have to be compulsory in schools. They don’t reduce bullying, they’re not cost-effective and they don’t give children a sense of pride in their school. Instead, they’re probably embarrassed by the excessive fuss made over it. Instead, they’re looking forward to changing out of those clothes as soon as they get home.