Against school uniform

Muslim school boys forced into segregated study for sporting facial hair is the latest in a growing tide of controversies caused by British schools’ rigid application of dress codes and appearance rules. As local and national media stories attest, kids are regularly sent home because their hair is too short, too corn-rowed, their skin too fake-tanned, their jewellery and make-up too noticeable (or even just there), and their bodies too covered or, conversely, too revealed.

Once it seemed such demands for uniform appearance were on their way out. At the London girls’ school I attended, Camden School for Girls, students gladly gave up their uniforms in a student-led initiative in 1978.  During my time, people changed their hair colour regularly, wore t-shirts with stockings (and little more), and experimentally draped flamboyant costume jewellery. While we mostly wore jeans and floppy tops (it was the late 1970s and 80s) – high femme looks were also seen. Clothing and appearance were a terrain of play – for participants and observers alike. Status did not follow those with expensively branded clothes but went to fashion innovators who could compose a stylish outfit from time-invested trips to market stalls, second hand clothes shops and army surplus stores.

Things have changed. While school students in the 1960s and 70s fought against wearing uniforms, many kids today are vocal in their defence, advocating for dress-codes on grounds of equality, pride, belonging, and focus. 15 year old Chloe Spencer, writing in the Guardian comments, “Wearing a uniform is a badge of pride, creates an identity for a school and is an important part of being a school student”. She continues, “There is no competition about being dressed in the latest trend, which would put a great deal of financial pressure on students and parents.”

The argument school uniforms mute inequalities of class and wealth is, perhaps, its strongest rationale, interestingly paralleling similar arguments made by nudists. At twentieth century nudist camps, the ban on clothes (and talking about one’s job) was declared an important social leveller. Like school uniform advocates, nudists also promoted nakedness as a way to avoid clothing’s distractions and the time-consuming question of what to wear. Nudism hasn’t been promoted as an option in any school I know of, but its resonance with school uniform debates raises questions about the way dress codes assert a disciplinary ethos.

1. Surveillance: While nudist clubs debate whether menstruating women can wear underwear, and whether shoes or jewellery count as transgression, school dress-codes also place excessive attention on how kids’ bodies appear. With their self-presentation monitored to ensure compliance, young people become the objects of adults’ surveillance and scrutiny. Whether or not teachers want to, they are required to check out whether kids comply with rules on hair, make-up, clothes, jewellery and shoes. This scrutinising is not neutral. Many of the cases to hit the news concern minority ethnic or religious forms of dress. Girls who veil, boys who sport beards or corn-rows become the exception – to be accommodated or rejected according to school rules, state law, parental views, and students’ reactions.

These kinds of conflicts are of course wider than school dress codes, driven by a contemporary politics about who does and doesn’t belong, who is safe and who is deemed to pose a threat. Elimination of school dress-codes of course doesn’t stop racialised conflicts from appearing in other forms. However, dress codes provide a distinct, legitimating frame through which adult and institutional judgments are made about how children appear, with their detailed scrutiny and normalising assessment of where the limits should be drawn. Dress codes permit schools to formally exclude children they define as over-stepping the limit, leaving minority kids and parents with little choice but to fight back, including through the courts, as unnecessary clothes rules set some young people on a collision course with their school.

2. Belonging: Dress-code advocates repeatedly claim they promote order, belonging and pride. Whether they actually do so is doubtful; but more problematic is the implication these values are inherently good, at least when it comes to children. Making belonging obligatory is far easier for schools than gaining kids’ positive attachments through institutional work and effort. But shouldn’t kids also have the space to express and explore relationships of non-belonging – to not feel pride in or identification with their school?

Experimenting with detachment was once seen as a legitimate part of growing up; but in today’s educational market, schools can ill afford such studied ambivalence. It seems more than accidental that the growing number of schools requiring uniforms coincides with their competitive battle to gain pupils. Uniforms become an important branding and marketing device; and pupils in public space advertise and promote the school to which they belong.

3.  Authority: Wearing a uniform on the streets, on public transport, in shops, or other leisure venues also signifies something else: that authority over young people has been temporarily transferred. In a context where “good” parents extensively supervise their children, and where “good” children don’t hang out in public places alone or with friends, school uniforms function as a guardian proxy, symbolically identifying that kids are now in the school’s charge. School uniforms convey a message that the “unsupervised” child on the street has not fallen into a vacuum of authority, loco parentis lies with the school – a responsibility underscored and policed every time complaints are made about the out of school behaviour of pupils.

Children at schools without dress-codes are of course not free. Many factors affect the decisions they can make: from parental demands to peer and media pressures. It is unsurprisingly tempting to see the school uniform as a “week-day” breathing-space from the burdens children otherwise face – a time when they can give themselves over to studying rather than obsess about how they (and everyone else) look.

But is this kind of compartmentalisation helpful with its notion lives should be lived in orderly ways: learning here, playing there, eating over there, and sex way over there? In uniform, children are first and foremost pupils – their role underscored by an obligatory dress code. Wearing a uniform selected by an institution reminds kids why they’re there and what they’re supposed to do: pay attention, answer questions, do what they are told.

Eliminating school dress-codes doesn’t lead to more authentic form of expression. But it does suggest a less compartmentalised ethos, where children aren’t forced to appear as non-adults (clean shaven, unadorned), and where the mingling and overlap between different parts of life are seen positively rather than as a distraction. Advocates of uniform often forget schools are also about sociality, creativity, pleasure and sensation – qualities vital for successful education. Creativity and pleasure can co-exist with school uniforms, but policing young people’s appearance as a legitimate school mission conveys the message education is fundamentally about training and compliance instead.

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