Uniformed or Uninformed?

Before Christmas I watched the short BBC 2 series “School” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0brj5df ). Of course TV programmes are made to grab headlines and increase ratings, so it’s not surprising that most of what was shown depicted “problems”, but even so, I was routinely horrified in at least 4 out of the 6 episodes to see the lengths the school staff went to, and the time they spent, keeping students out of lessons and preventing them from learning on the basis that they were not wearing the correct uniform, or not wearing it ‘properly’.

Last night I watched the second in the BBC 2 series “Back in time for school” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bx7lxc ). This episode depicts schooling from a little before WW1 to the end of WW2. I was struck, not for the first time, by how little school had changed from the 1902 Balfour Education Act until certainly when I was at school in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and indeed in my experience when I was teaching in schools in the early 2000’s. One of the things that hadn’t changed was the emphasis on uniform, and one of the students in last night’s programme commented himself how similar it still is today in his school. In the 1920’s school it was said that pupils might be “thumped, smacked or caned” for failure to comply with uniform.

So in the early 20th century corporal punishment was used to enforce uniform and in the early 21st century exclusion from learning is used to enforce uniform: uniform must surely, therefore, be incredibly important for academic success.

But why do schools place such emphasis on uniform? What is the justification for preventing students from attending classes because their tie is not properly knotted or their shoe laces are the wrong colour (both examples from “School” episode 1)?

We often hear the argument that wearing a uniform prevents bullying based on fashion garments, but this isn’t my experience either as a student or as a teacher, and literature doesn’t support this very well either, with some studies directly contradicting it (e.g. Sherwin, 2015). This argument is sometimes “strengthened” by the claim that uniform is cheaper than fashion clothing and is therefore beneficial to ensure that the socio-economically disadvantaged are not as visible to their peers, but this is not widely supported and again some studies directly contradict (e.g. Brunsma, 2007). The UK Government website even acknowledges that uniform is often too expensive with advice for how to take action if you are being forced to buy uniform from only one supplier and therefore unable to find the best prices.

Other popular arguments are that uniform creates a sense of belonging, that it teaches the students self-discipline and that it makes students ‘ready to learn’, but it’s a struggle to find much evidence-based research to support these claims. (Although it’s interesting that a Google search for “school uniform improves learning” brings up a Guardian article about Devon school boys wearing skirts in the heatwave because their school refused to allow them to wear shorts instead of their heavy tartan trousers … surely no one can be expected to learn effectively if sweating profusely in heavy tartan and temperatures of 30 degrees plus?)

It occurs to me that, in a society which continually shouts loudly about how much diversity is to be celebrated, many young people spend the first 16 years of their lives being told that they have to be the same: how ironic!

Of course, I’m not saying that there cannot ever be any justification for uniform, but crucially I can’t locate any reliable and well-supported evidence that uniform improves learning and achievement, still less anything to suggest that the improvements in learning and achievement are so great that they justify keeping students out of the classroom when uniform is not being worn.

This all leaves me wondering whether the promotion of school uniform is simply uninformed?

Dave Darwent is a Senior Lecturer and E:Learning Technologist at Sheffield Institute of Education