The School Uniform Debate: Imposing Conformity In the Name Of Equality?

Back in July – just as most families and their children were beginning their summer holidays – the German discount chains Aldi and Lidl sparked a price war in the school uniform sector. As reported by Rebecca Smithers, the Guardian’s Consumer Affairs correspondent, Lidl announced it would be offering “ a package of four primary school essentials – two polo shirts, a sweater and trousers or pleated skirt” for a mere £3.75.

Aldi promptly responded by slashing it’s price for the same four items to £3.69. This meant, as Smithers noted, that parents would be able to “kit out their children for less than they’d have to pay for a Pret-A-Manger salad”. Her colleague, Zoe Wood, subsequently queried in an article on 18th July as to how this could possibly be achieved – and quoted Emma Harbour of the Clean Clothes Campaign as pointing out that “If Aldi are selling a school uniform pack for £4, then it’s fair to assume that the textile workers in Bangladesh producing them are earning at most around 8p for the whole pack”.

The Aldi/Lidl announcements may not, moreover, have entirely allayed the concerns of parent organizations such as Mumset that “cheap, mass-produced, poor quality uniforms are a false economy as they will not last once they are worn and washed regularly”. There is also perhaps a certain irony in two German supermarket conglomerates offering discounts for school uniforms in the UK when there is no tradition of them being worn in their home country. Indeed, in Germany (as in Italy, where they also uncommon), uniforms are associated with the militarism of the 20th century and are hence extremely controversial.

Despite the Aldi/Lidl initiatives, the consensus in the British media during August has been that the cost of sending a child back to school continues to rise. Several journalists – among them Graham Brown of the Birmingham Mail and Mark Thompson of press.co.uk – have highlighted research conducted by Nationwide Credit cards, which calculated that parents will have to spend at least £186 to ensure that their child is sufficiently equipped for the new academic year. Clothing and footwear, it seems, will constitute most of the expenditure:

Nationwide have estimated the average amount for a school uniform to be £31.29; school shoes (£25.90); jacket or coat (£22.17); school bag (£12.35); lunch box (£6.60). Furthermore, “sports equipment, stationary, books and technology such as tablets will add to the costs”. As a result, 46% of parents interviewed said that they will buy their child’s school shirt and 25% their child’s school shoes from a supermarket; 11% of them admitted  that they would be asking the child’s grandparents to help fund these purchases”.

All this raises the question as to whether the cost of school uniforms is putting undue pressure on families with limited financial resources. A survey by the Children’s Society, reported in The Independent newspaper, has indicated that many such families “are ending up in debt or are forced to cut back on basic essentials in order to pay for these items”. Furthermore, that “nearly 800,000 pupils go to school in poorly fitting uniforms because their parents cannot afford to keep buying new ones and 400,000 have been sent home for wearing “incorrect” clothes.

The Read Foundation UK, in response, has stressed that “non school uniforms” can prove to be even more of a burden for parents, “especially as, in a matter of months, fashion can change and new clothes are required. Having a standard uniform prevents this ongoing expense”. The Read Foundation’s view that “a sense of comfort can be associated with uniformity as children don’t feel pressured to “dress up” is shared by the American school safety consultant, Ken Trump, who has observed that “ it takes away the daily fashion show and helps level the playing field between the haves and have-nots”.

The Foundation also contends that uniforms enable intruders or outsiders to be easily identified by the authorities, children can show their personality through behaviour rather than what they wear and that they “prepare children for corporate life, where, in many professions, formal attire is the norm”.

The basic function of a school uniform –in the opinion of the Daily Telegraph columnist Sally Peck- is to be affordable comfortable, practicable and it should save parents and children time in the morning”. It doesn’t, she insists, “kill individuality”. Moreover – so Matthew Easter, chairman of the Schoolwear Association, has declared: “School uniforms are now clearly linked to academic performance and good behaviour and we see more schools and academies upgrading to a smarter and better quality uniform as a result”

The Read Foundation does concede that there are some valid arguments against the school uniform: for example, that it can “clamp down on a child’s freedom of expression” and that, because it identifies which school the child belongs to, it can lead to conflict with pupils from other schools. Particularly topical is the possibility that the prescribed uniform might “not be in accordance with the religious beliefs of the child or its family”: In January, the HM Chief Inspector of Education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, issued a statement instructing his inspectors to judge a school as “inadequate” if the people in charge were “condoning the wearing of the face veil by staff members or by pupils” and if this was “clearly hindering communication and effective teaching”. Leora Cruddas, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, retorted that it wasn’t the role of Ofsted inspectors to judge schools on uniform policies and dress codes: “Inspectors should focus on what schools achieve, rather than what people wear”.

According to BBC News “Within Europe, Britain has long been viewed as the country of school uniform”. Most of its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia (says histclo.com) adopted the tradition (albeit in styles suited to the local climate), as did New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (though not Canada). Uniforms are “almost universal” in schools in China and Japan. In both Colombia and Venezuela (but not in Brazil) it is a legal requirement for pupils in both public and private schools to wear uniforms.

In the USA, although there has been “a significant increase in school uniforms in recent years” (school.uniforms.com), most public schools don’t require them. However, many of them do stipulate dress codes that “usually include limits on skirt length and skin exposure – as well as prohibitions on clothing with tears or holes, exposure of undergarments, and anything that is obscene, gang-related or unsafe”.

Filed under: Society | Posted on August 29th, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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