Old-fashioned, pointless AND expensive – is it time to ditch school uniforms yet?
Growing up in Scandinavia, I never wore a school uniform going to school.
Nobody did. Nor do they nowadays.
In my school, rather than school uniforms, the focus was very much that children should be dressed for comfort – and in clothing that allowed plenty of movement and was suitable for outdoor play.
In the spring and summers, that most often meant shorts and t-shirts. In the winter, it meant warmer clothes and proper outdoor wear for playing outside every break, come rain or shine – or lots and lots of snow, which there always was plenty of during the winter.
A few years ago, when my eldest child was going to start school here in Ireland, I was so happy to find that the primary school we had enrolled her in had a no uniform policy too.
Because, honestly – for starters, I could not think of anything more annoying than having to iron uniform shirts and skirts every week. And secondly, I just think the drab, boring uniforms in their drab, boring colours are literally the opposite of children and their joyful, playful spirits.
Expensive – and unnecessary
Another reason I think uniforms should be optional – if not completely phased out – is that they put an unnecessary expense on parents at the start of every school year or semester.
Even the more generic ones cost money – and don't get me started on jumpers and dresses and blazers with school crests, that can quickly add even more to the already vast back-to-school bill.
In fact, I will argue that in many cases, school uniforms emphasize the socio-economic divisions they are supposed to eliminate. Remember, even within one school, uniforms cannot conceal the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Families who can afford to buy more uniforms per child, while the less affluent have one – which is more likely to be tattered, torn and faded, certainly by the end of the school year.
In Ireland, education is supposed to be 'free'– but the expense of having to buy uniforms directly contradicts this. Keep in mind that parents already pay taxes, and they still need to buy regular clothes for their children to wear when they’re out of school and for dress-down days.
In fact, the Children’s Commission on Poverty (UK) recently found that over “95 percent of parents on low incomes reported difficulties in meeting school-related costs,” including uniforms, despite their children attending tuition-free schools
Conformity over individuality
In my children's school, the 'uniform' is simple – whatever kids will wear normally, they also wear in school. My little girl will wear leggings and a t-shirt most days, maybe a dress here or there, or jeans, or shorts when the weather heats up.
My little boy is much the same, shorts and t-shirts, a jumper, chinos, or jeans or even tracksuit bottoms on days when it is cooler or when he just fancies being really comfy.
The schoolyard is a riot of joyful colours and nobody could care less where their clothes come from. In eight years, I have yet to hear of one incident of anyone being left out or looked down on or given any attention at all over what they were wearing – to the vast, vast majority of kids, clothes are just clothes.
Uniforms teach children that being an individual is wrong and that conformity is good. The problem?
Research has shown that getting to dress themselves in what they want not only encourages independent thinking in kids and teens, but it also prepares them for adulthood when they have to learn to adapt to shifting social standards and contexts—skills that will serve them well as adults. When they prepare for their first college visits, job interviews, internships or promotions, they will need to know how to make appropriate choices.
Uniforms, on the other hand, do not facilitate this with their cookie-cutter, conformist solution.
No individual expression
Being a mum of a 12-year-old girl with many opinions on fashion – and also an eight-year-old boy who couldn't care less what he wears as long as he can run, jump and climb in it – trust me, I have endured some conversations about clothing choices.
But annoying as they can be – especially at 7.30 in the morning – the fact is that arguments over clothes give kids an opportunity to express their identity and values to us parents. And equally important, they give us parents a platform for transmitting our values. Respectful disagreements can facilitate maturity, and give children the confidence to learn how to stand their ground with their own ideas.
In fact, interestingly, in Sweden, a government agency determined that uniforms were a human rights violation because “dress and appearance should be considered an individual expression, decided by the students themselves.”
Negative effect on self-image
Another major problem with uniforms is that in schools where uniforms are specifically gendered (girls must wear skirts and boys must wear pants), transgendered, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming students can feel ostracized.
And even for children who are not gender-fluid or gender-nonconforming, uniforms can be really problematic, and even go as far as really harm their self-confidence and mental health.
When students have to wear the same outfits, rather than being allowed to select clothes that suit their body types, they can suffer embarrassment at school.
Child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman told NBC News’ Today that students, especially girls, tend to compare how each other looks in their uniforms:
“As a body image expert, I hear from students all the time that they feel it allows for a lot of comparisons… So if you have a body that’s a plus-size body, a curvier body, a very tall body, a very short body, those girls often feel that they don’t look their best.”
Uniforms also encourage a gender gap when it comes to movement and physical activity.
The truth is that primary school girls have long complained that their school uniforms prohibit them from moving freely, and it’s a problem that’s created yet another gender gap: participation discrepancies in physical activity between boys and girls.
According to a new University of Newcastle study, that activity gap looks like this: Just 52 percent of primary-aged girls are meeting recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity over a school day, compared with 70 percent of boys.
Infuriating? I know.
No difference in terms of attendance, academic preparedness or exam results
What is left, then, when it comes to arguing that uniforms should be kept in schools? Did you think they make a difference in behaviours? Academic success? Attendance?
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
According to a US study by Professor of Sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, David L. Brunsma, “no effects of uniforms were found on absenteeism, behavioural problems (fights, suspensions, etc.), or pro-school attitudes, academic preparedness, and peer attitudes toward school.”