Tes focus on...Uniforms and behaviour

The debate about the benefits or otherwise of getting pupils to wear identical clothing has been raging for decades, but what does the research say? Eliza Frost gets the low-down from an expert
17th January 2020, 12:04am
Focus On... Uniforms & Discipline


Tes focus on...Uniforms and behaviour


If you want to start an argument in education, uniform is a pretty safe bet: we’re well-practised in the punch and counter-punch combos of this particular debate, so everyone settles nicely into the rhythm of things without too much effort. Uniforms are a social leveller (jab), they are a means of exclusion (counter jab), they cost too much for parents (right hook), they are far cheaper than having to buy a whole school wardrobe of the latest fashions (defensive hold), and so on.

The evidence for each position tends to be largely anecdotal, but one attack used by those in favour of uniforms has been given a stronger evidential base in recent times, according to Chris Baumann, associate professor in the department of marketing at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia: the idea that uniforms make children behave better.

Standing to attention

Intuitively, it makes sense: the military professions obsess over uniform partly for reasons of discipline, but does that necessarily prove true in an educational setting? Baumann - who has studied the role of uniforms in schools and more generally - thinks it does.

When he began looking into the subject, he found that the non-school-related research around the wearing of uniform suggested numerous benefits.

“Generally, the literature points towards positive effects of uniforms - for example, when they’re used on airlines, or for nurses, firefighters, police and so on,” he says. “Uniforms contribute to ‘role clarity’ and enhance visibility. They may also contribute to the formation of identity and loyalty. A uniform marks out a group of individuals and indicates common membership.”

But the effects on discipline in schools were less well-evidenced. So in 2016, Baumann and his colleague Hana Krskova, a senior research assistant, decided to use data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) to see if they could obtain some answers.

“We were interested to test whether uniformed students generally would have better discipline. We shared the detailed results of our study in the International Journal of Educational Management,” says Baumann. “We could see a significant difference for students who wear uniforms and the ones who do not.

“We found that students wearing school uniforms listen significantly better to the teacher, there are lower noise levels [in the classroom] and there are lower teaching waiting times with classes starting on time.

“The results of our study supported our overarching hypothesis that a uniform appears to be an integral part of effective school discipline. Students wearing a uniform appear to be more disciplined, which also means that more time can be spent on actual learning and teaching rather than on disciplinary issues.”

In his recent book, Confucianism, Discipline, and Competitiveness, Baumann looks again at uniform and outlines three key reasons why behaviour might be boosted.

First, uniforms establish a clear standard and expectation for students in terms of their presentation. Second, uniforms signal that the student represents the school, which entails greater responsibility in maintaining its image or reputation. Finally, uniforms eliminate a great deal of time wasted regarding what is considered appropriate attire.

Inappropriate attire

For any weary senior leadership team member who spends far too much time telling pupils to straighten ties, this last point may seem improbable, but Baumann stresses that things could be much worse.

“In fact, we hear far too often of news stories from the US where students are being pulled out of class, handed detentions or sent home for ‘inappropriate clothing’ - for example, ripped jeans or shorts that are considered too short,” he says.

Baumann adds that “all the time and effort which could be better spent on more pressing issues, such as how to improve students’ academic performance” is being spent on disciplining “inappropriate” attire.

Clearly, however, looking into uniform and its impact on school discipline is tricky because levels of enforcement can vary wildly. What is considered smart and presentable in one country may be considered worthy of a week of detentions in another. And that’s just the beginning of the issues around isolating uniform as a behaviour variable.

Todd DeMitchell, professor of education and professor of justice studies at the University of New Hampshire in the US, writes on The Conversation website that “the findings on the impact of school uniforms on student behaviour, discipline, connection to the school, attendance and academic gains is at best mixed”.

DeMitchell cites a 2010 study in the US, which found uniforms had no impact on the number of suspensions (exclusions) issued by schools that introduced uniforms. Across a number of studies, introducing uniforms tended to have a negative impact on the behaviour of high school students, he adds (although, for elementary level students, there were more positive results).

Baumann admits the literature is not “crystal clear” on the specific effects of uniform on students and discipline, but says this “is often the case for research issues in education or business, or other areas of investigation”.

He agrees there can be huge variations among schools that use uniform, locally and nationally. “The level of enforcement of uniform and dress standards varies around the globe quite markedly,” he says. “In Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, correct wearing of the uniform is strictly enforced with consequences for sloppy appearance (in regard to uniform and hairstyle), whereas in other parts of the world, dress standards are more relaxed.”

Positive associations

But despite all this, Baumann says we can still get a decent picture from the research. “There is good indication in the literature of positive associations between school uniforms and forms of performance or achievement,” he argues. “Indeed, some have found that uniforms may contribute to lower levels of violence, reduced family stress and the shaping of a positive childhood environment.

“Our results are in line with this stream of research, [showing that] a uniform has a positive effect on discipline standards.”

As such, Baumann says it is worth teachers strictly enforcing uniform. “If a uniform contributes to better discipline, then there is a strong case to be made for their usage in education environments,” he argues.

Of course, the question isn’t just whether uniforms make a positive impact but how significant that impact is. If the negative effects outweigh the positive, is it worth the bother?

Again, the research picture is mixed, but Baumann feels there are enough positive effects in addition to those connected with behaviour to mean that uniforms should still be the first choice for schools.

“From an economic perspective, they reduce the pressure to dress well, especially for students of a lower socioeconomic background,” he says. “And from an efficiency perspective, the implementation of uniforms makes the process of dressing for school faster.

“Therefore, school uniforms have clear advantages, which also include establishing a sense of ‘equality’ among student peers, where no one can be judged on their attire, or conclusions drawn on their socioeconomic background because of what they do or do not have.”

It’s certainly a compelling argument but it probably won’t be viewed as a knockout punch just yet.

Eliza Frost is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 17 January 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…Uniforms and discipline”

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