There is no good reason to insist that young people wear a uniform to school but there are good reasons not to do so. School uniforms do not promote better learning, do not increase discipline, do not create community spirit, do not improve relationships between teachers and pupils, do not improve relationships between pupils and do not prepare young people for later life. They should be abolished.
Young people go to school to learn, but this can mean many things. It is sometimes claimed that school uniform makes fashion invisible so that pupils can concentrate on subject learning. Yet teenage life tends not to run by such simple formulae. Hybrid styles emerge, sometimes in tiny detail. A stripe on a shoe or a bangle on a wrist would be invisible under normal conditions; in a teenage-adult power game, however, they are giant pawns. If we fail to hold the line here, what will they challenge us on next?
Global inequality, war or environmental threats, we should hope. Teachers can try to focus youngsters’ minds on insignificant details, but intelligent young people ought to resist, through the inspiration of better teachers. Everything that happens in a school, including resistance, is a part of the curriculum. Equally, education’s key task involves teachers and pupils jointly working out how to cope with an increasingly scary world. The magnitude of this task is overwhelming. It is what should make fashion invisible; and it exposes school uniform as banal. Teachers can hide behind trivia, but what are we unintentionally teaching the young about our own preoccupations, failings and fears?
Uniform improves behaviour in school about as much as it does in prison or the military. Youngsters misbehave when they think it best – comedic improvisations are more fun than boring lessons – or when they cannot control themselves. In the first case, they require engaging learning experience, in the second, what they wear is irrelevant. Most anti-social behaviour happens at night in urban areas on weekends, caused by drunkenness rather than clothes (normally, the participants are hardly wearing any), or poverty.
School uniform creates community bonds by removing class or cultural differences, until youngsters open their mouths. Will education build a world less scarred by inequality or intercultural tensions? Yes (but on a more ambitious, imaginative agenda than: let’s make them all dress identically).
It has to be appreciated that the presence or absence of uniform changes the tone of a school. Uniform’s absence relaxes relationships and makes room for individuality. There tends to be less emphasis on standardisation and more on creativity; less on rules and more on learning. Can teachers and pupils get used to this? It takes time. So did the removal of corporal punishment.
The world is not only getting scarier, but more politically complex. Accustomed models of economic activity and even statehood are being left behind. We do not know how life will be lived in 2050 but we sense that the next generation will need greater flexibility and mobility than ours. The present UK administration’s schooling polity is interesting. The heart of the secretary of state for education is in 1950. Schools that seek favourable inspection comment should turn to traditional subject learning, uniforms, house systems and other trappings of the post-war era. Life was more uniform then. In South Yorkshire, men could have envisaged leaving school and then spending fifty years in a coal mine. Not any more, though one way of dealing with diminished predictability is to react as if nothing has changed.
All of this reflects stark contradictions. In one school, the prospectus begins by stating that every individual is unique. Parents can find details of the uniform later in the same document. Advocates of school uniforms might succeed in establishing uniform schools that turn out uniform citizens, but the marks of democracy are choice and dissent. In western democracies, there is a perennial turn to the right. School uniforms should die, but not as organs in the corpses of state-funded schools.