Uniforms and punishments for poverty

A picture of a 12-year-old white girl wearing a school uniform consisting of a black jumper with the school's logo partially visible, a white shirt with a blue tie with blue and white stripes, and a grey pleated skirt. She is standing in front of a grey picket fence with a taller garden wall behind her. At the bottom is the quote, "We had to lift our top so the waistband was visible. It was horrible because the other people started making fun of me saying I could not afford one. -- Toni-Leigh, sent to isolation for wearing an 'unofficial' skirt".

Last week and the week before, there was another wave of news stories, as we have come to expect in early September, of children being punished in one way or another, usually by being sent home from school or put into isolation at school, for trivial infractions of a school’s uniform code. In this case, the incident that made the biggest headlines was a school which isolated girls for wearing a skirt which was almost identical to the specified one, a grey pleated one with an unpleated band just below the waistband; the official one from the school’s named supplier cost over £20, while the verboten one cost about £7 for two at a local supermarket and could be distinguished only by looking very closely, or inside the waistband for the label. Usually, the incidents involve at least some level of wilful disobedience of the uniform on the child’s part, but this was purely a punishment for parents’ decisions and, at that, one influenced by poverty during a cost-of-living crisis. It’s shameful.

Also last week, there were stories of children (particularly boys) being refused permission to wear shorts during the heatwave of the week before last. Usually such uniform rules are relaxed during the summer, but as summer weather has started to appear as early as late February and now well into the autumn, headteachers are being caught on the hop. In this as in other cases, boys have taken to wearing skirts to school (which are allowed by the rules in many schools now, though obviously with the expectation that boys will not wear them) and this time, when boys asked to be allowed to wear shorts in the heat, they were told their choices were trousers or skirts.

I read a blog post by John Cosgrove, a retired headteacher who is generally in favour of uniforms, on the grounds that they foster a sense of belonging, while rejecting claims that they improve academic outcomes or reduce bullying. I had an unpleasant encounter a couple of weeks ago also with someone claiming to have been a teacher, who said that uniforms “teach respect” and if the other person in the conversation had taught in the inner cities like he had, she would know what he was talking about. (My experience is that quite a lot of teachers are in no position to teach that, as they show children none at all.) Cosgrove said that he never excluded a child for not wearing uniform properly and that if uniform rules were being used as a reason to exclude a child, they would be doing the exact opposite of fostering a sense of belonging. Another common justification is that they masque social divisions; in this case, the teachers exposed them to the school at a morning uniform inspection. I posted a long comment on his entry, focussing on the need for uniforms to be comfortable: not constricting, and made of decent fabrics. Uniforms were the cause of constant confrontations for me as a child, as I found the top button constricting and I would undo it whenever teachers were not looking.

A more common cause of contention is the insistence on blazers, especially during irregular heatwaves such as this recent one. Blazers are business dress and are traditionally made of wool or other natural fibres; the ones children are expected to wear are often made of cheap polyester, and are uncomfortable not only in the summer heat but also indoors when heating is on in winter. (Some uniform suppliers offer a choice of fabrics; I recall my mother buying uniform with the brand ‘Costcutter’.) The same goes with every other item of school clothing; cheap synthetic garbage, itchy and sweaty in the heat. Long trousers made of decent material of appropriate weight are not uncomfortable; the only reason boys are protesting over not being allowed shorts is because the trousers are made of poor fabric. A number of years ago a Catholic school in Hampshire instituted a bespoke skirt for its girls (the boys could wear supermarket uniform trousers) which they boasted was made of polyester from recycled drink bottles. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable that was. Parents had to pay for it, of course, and the “large girls’ uniform” cost nearly £100. The same school now has a mandatory blazer made of the same ‘sustainable’ plastic-based fabric. (Holderness Academy in Hull, the school at the centre of the pleated skirt debacle, also does not specify where trousers may come from in its uniform policy, only skirts.)

I’m not opposed to school dress codes or pupils being required to wear certain colours, but they are there to learn, supposedly, not make the school or the academy trust or their corporate sponsor look good. Normally, when you want someone to look a certain way to represent you, you pay them; either you pay them a wage that more than covers the cost, or you pay their expenses. This is the only situation I can think of where people are not being paid, yet their families are required to pay for a uniform. Parents often say that uniforms save them money by having one set of clothes to wear for school which won’t be dirtied by whatever they do at home, but the sheer expense of some bespoke uniforms must outweigh that for some families.

I should add that, as John Cosgrove points out, uniform does not correlate with academic success; some of the world’s countries with a good academic success rate have them (such as China) and others do not (such as Finland). Holderness Academy indeed has a mediocre Ofsted inspection rating, rated “requires improvement” in four out of five categories including “quality of education”. Uniforms are, in my opinion, a symptom of a class-ridden society where state schools are regarded by much of the ruling class as a poor second cousin to private education, which (except for a few niche schools, such as Steiner schools) usually has an expensive uniform. The ‘public’ school is the model; the state school tries to follow it through customs such as uniforms and prefects. They are not there for a practical reason and the justifications are post facto; they are a legacy of the past and while the harms these customs cause is plain enough in this country, in some poorer countries where this custom was inherited from the British colonial period, many children are simply shut out of education because their families cannot afford a uniform. School leaders must remember that school is not just a means to an end; it is an institution that nowadays dominates children’s lives from five years old to adulthood. It is their now, and teachers should be striving to make it happy and comfortable rather than justifying any oppression on the grounds that they might “learn from it”.

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