Battles over school uniforms seem to intensify with every new school year. School blazers have always been a British tradition, but clothing polices are getting more detailed and Draconian. Shoes need to be black enough, skirts the approved length, and ties bearing the exact number of stripes. Pupils face tighter rules and tougher reprimands.
All this sartorial censorship is founded on the widespread belief that school uniform helps to develop a whole-school ethos that creates better-behaved and motivated learners.
“We know wearing school uniform improves results,” claimed one headteacher, defending his policy of sending students into solitary isolation for failing to dress appropriately.
Yet there is no robust evidence that introducing a school uniform will, by itself, improve the academic results, behaviour or attendance of pupils. The summary of studies from around the world in the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit finds the average impact is zero. For every school that has succeeded in raising attainment by introducing a uniform policy, another has failed.
But most studies assess schools in which uniforms are just one of many changes introduced. The research, you could say, is threadbare – and with many holes in it.
It's not a fashion competition
Yet schoolwear may have some benefits. It removes competition and comparison between students about their clothes and the latest fashions. It also supplies an image of equality.
Most parents support school uniform, as it avoids the conflict over what children wear each morning. It can reduce clothing costs for parents – although schools need to be aware of families that genuinely struggle to afford what is required.
Schools also need to think of their own costs. How much time and energy goes into managing the uniform policy? Do you spend an equal amount of time ensuring pupils apply themselves to their learning? Is there a zero-tolerance policy on lack of effort in the classroom? Uniforms provide an easily visible target, yet they can distract from what matters most: the invisible interaction between teacher and learner.
Humiliating your pupils is risky: it compromises the relationships you are trying to build with young people, often at the age at which they enjoy testing the boundaries of arbitrary rules. Is the cost to the individual pupil justified, given there is so little evidence on learning outcomes?
Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. Together, they authored the teaching and learning toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit