Who needs uniforms?

14th April 2006 at 01:00
"It helps to get up in the morning and not have to think about what you're going to wear."

Who said that ? No, it wasn't a naturist. In fact, it was Maria, a ninth-grader who swims, plays soccer, and wears precisely what every other girl wears at her high school in Washington, DC - all-white Oxford shirt, brown shoes and a greymaroon plaid skirt that must be long enough to touch the ground when she kneels.

It's a fashion statement that spread, coast to coast, across the United States. From sleepless in Seattle to New York, New York, school uniforms, so the theory goes, help kids focus on maths not minis, French not fashion, quadratic equations not questionable make-up, grades not gear. Maria's school board president affirms that the policy is important "to diminish peer pressure and promote school pride".

No-nonsense uniforms are also what many schools are using as weapons in the war against gang-related violence and classroom distractions - with presidential backing. Here was Bill Clinton: "If it means that schoolrooms will be more orderly and disciplined, and that our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside instead of what they're wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms."

Sound familiar? It should, because it prefaces, if by a decade or so, Jack McConnell's declaration that he would like to see pupils wearing uniforms in all our schools. The First Minister said moves introduced by left-wing education officials in the 1980s, such as the banning of uniforms, had proved "devastating" for two generations of Scots pupils. But is he right? Can Maria's experience be replicated here?

Certainly John Fitzpatrick, headteacher of St Luke's High in East Renfrewshire, has no doubts that uniforms go "hand in hand with high-performing schools and they remove the enormous pressure on parents to dress their children competitively".

He adds: "My experience is that the majority of parents approve."

Lesley Carroll, headteacher of Holyrood High in Edinburgh, also thinks its time has definitely come. "What it allows the children to do is to say we are really proud of being part of this community. It ensures that young people are not in competition with one another about designer labels."

Yet Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council is unconvinced.

"It doesn't remove competition; competition simply moves to other areas like mobile phones. It doesn't improve academic results because we have Finland, the highest performing country in Europe, without school uniform.

It's convenient, that's all you can say for it."

As it applies in Scotland, the law is not specific on the question of school uniform. Pupils whose parents do not want them to wear uniform cannot be disciplined. Ambiguously, however, a child who simply refuses to wear the uniform can be disciplined if the school authorities believe that academic or disciplinary considerations obtain.

That being said, the answer to one of the more "FAQs" on the Equal Opportunities Commission website states that "it is not unlawful for a school to have rules about the standard of dress of its pupils".

And schools' uniform policies do have to take religious and cultural requirements into account. Indeed, much publicity was gained recently for a school in England that excluded a pupil, Shabina Begum, for failing to adhere to its uniform policy, notwithstanding the fact that she claimed she was being denied the right to manifest her religion through the wearing of the jilbab. The school was informed by the Law Lords that its uniforms policy did not breach Miss Begum's human rights.

We have now reached the stage where sales of girls' school skirts have been overtaken by trousers for the first time, according to one of Britain's biggest school uniform suppliers. In Woolworths, which accounts for 10 per cent of the trade, trousers have a 52 per cent share of the girls' market, compared with skirts at 48 per cent.

Of course, searching questions remain. If someone is prepared to learn, can or should that learning be conditioned by how they are dressed? After all, we tell our children it's who you are on the inside that counts. Are uniforms, in fact, just a "Band-Aid" solution to a deeply flawed educational and social system?

Put it another way, if everyone in your community wore exactly the same outfit, would the community automatically be a better place in which to live? Or is it more important to diminish peer pressure and promote school and community pride, well-being and social stability?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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