Wearing a uniform: Are we really equal?

School-uniforms-in-the-UK1

L’uniforme scolaire est très courant au Royaume-Uni. Pratiquement tous les établissements publics et privés ont leur uniforme, ou au moins un code vestimentaire strict. Il est imposé aux familles, néanmoins ce sont ces mêmes familles qui le financent. Certaines écoles contraignent les familles à payer un uniforme dont le coût total avoisine les 300 euros. N’est-il pas contradictoire de faire porter un uniforme, symbole d’égalité entre des écoliers de familles aisées et de familles modestes, et d’imposer un uniforme que toutes les familles ne peuvent financer ? D’autre part, l’intérêt éducatif de ce genre de mesures n’étant pas avéré et le débat autour de cette question générant toujours autant de clivages entre partisans et opposants à l’uniforme, on peut se demander si le port de l’uniforme est en effet si souhaitable…

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Most children have to wear a uniform between the ages of 4 and 16. Likewise, in most high schools, pupils between 16 and 18 have to wear one or follow a dress code -whose rules are sometimes relaxed. 98% state-owned schools impose a uniform. So do 78% of all primary schools. Families are to pay for the uniform (on top of the fees).

An account by Office of Fair Trading which has to protect consumers doesn’t approve of the agreements between British schools and the specialized suppliers that sell obligatory school uniforms at excessive prices. The cost of the uniform has been a burning issue in Britain for years: several members of the Department for Children, schools and families actually believe that by imposing a single supplier to buy the uniform, schools discriminate against poor students. Politicians have been concerned that expensive uniforms can be used by schools as a back-door selection process, which means deterring less affluent families from applying to certain schools. So, members of the Department suggest uniforms should be sold in supermarkets. But there is another problem: students who wear a cheap uniform or a damaged uniform are often excluded by other pupils. After the Office of Fair Trading published its account, agreements between schools and suppliers could be forbidden by the government.

In the UK, it goes largely unnoticed that the increasing popularity of blazer-and-tie uniforms over the last 30 years has coincided with increasing social inequalities. An investigation recently made by the Office of Fair Trading shows the following results : State-school children can now dress smartly and cheaply for learning (Tesco uniforms were £3.75 in 2011), but the divide between them and the pupils of Eton (three-piece tailsuit, £170) or Harrow (monitor’s black top hat, £158) is wider than ever.

A solution to reduce the cost of school uniforms for parents was offered by Liverpool which subsidized uniforms by giving parents a school uniform grant, but City mayor Joe Anderson is now proposing to cut school uniform grants as part of attempts to reduce the council’s budget by a further £11m. There are currently 24,000 children from low income families who receive uniform grants of £40 for secondary school pupils and £20 for primary. All of them will now have to pay more for their children’s uniforms. Many are adamant they shouldn’t be forced to pay…

The most relevant question that has to be considered is whether or not uniforms are a plus for children’s education. Does the uniform influence schools’ results? Those who are in favour of the uniform argue that it gives the pupils a common identity and a respect for the school and its rules as their school becomes a sort of second family to them. This argument supported by Conservatives but also by several Labour politicians is a very admissible argument, as is shown by the table below concerning a similar uniform policy in the US and the recent results of a survey made about it.

As can be seen on the table below, the results after 18 years with a uniform are quite convincing and show a decrease of violence and an increase of respect between students. Pupils “enjoy the sense of pride they get from wearing a […] uniform”  according to a research by Oxford Brookes University.  On this aspect, the usefulness of the uniform is to be considered as progress but it isn’t the only aspect that has to be taken into account.

The results of schools speak for themselves as the best results of schools that left the ”uniform system” came after they abandoned the uniform. According to many principals and headteachers who have taken this decision, not having a uniform makes it possible for everyone to focus on the most important education issues. Nonetheless those schools still have a dress code that every pupil has to follow to avoid problems and the rules are fairly simple: “3Cs” for “Clean, Comfortable and Covered up”. Maybe this is the solution to this unsolvable debate: with a flexible dress code that has to be strictly followed by every pupil, respect for the institution can be promoted but the inequality issue is no longer a problem. This will be examined by many schools in the months and years to come  but many are likely to keep the uniform intact because an overwhelming majority of politicians and headmasters are strongly attached to that tradition.

The following is a survey of Parents and Teachers regarding the implemented use of school uniforms. The percent represents those who marked “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”
Survey Question Parents Teachers
Policy has hindered self-expression and creativity 34 % 5 %
Policy has hindered individual student’s personal liberty 36 % 0 %
Has promoted a sense of security 41 % 86 %
Has increased school pride and has created a sense of community 42 % 80 %
The school uniform has been financially beneficial for my household 49 % 86 %
Has addressed the peer pressure issue of “fitting in” by wearing specific brands 47 % 90 %
Has promoted positive student behavior 37 % 95 %
Policy has minimized disruption and distractions 38 % 81 %
Has eliminated competition among students 36 % 52 %
School uniforms have improved the learning environment 35 % 81 %
The Board should extend the school uniform policy indefinitely 42 % 81 %
Long Beach, CA implemented uniforms in 1995 and reported the following results

 

Long Beach Uniform Statistics Data
Overall, the crime rate dropped by 91 %
School suspensions dropped by 90 %
Sex offenses were reduced by 96 %
Incidents of vandalism went down 69 %
Assaults in grades K-8 decreased by 85 %

 

Norfolk, VA implemented uniforms in 1995 and reported the following results
Long Beach Uniform Statistics Data
Leaving class without permission dropped by 47 %
Throwing objects dropped by 68 %
Fighting dropped by 38 %

 

Nathan DUFOUR & Arielle LEMARIE

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