Once a form of ‘social camouflage’, school uniforms have become impractical and unfair. Why it’s time for a makeover

As the start of the new school year approaches, school uniforms are dusted off or bought new. At the same time, centuries-old debates about the pros and cons of school uniforms are also being dusted off.

But questions about practicality, cost, or compliance tend to overshadow the bigger underlying question of how uniforms – and the rules for how to wear them – actually affect educational outcomes.

In other words, does wearing (or not wearing) a uniform help make students feel good mentally, physically comfortable, healthy and active – and therefore better equipped to learn?

After all, school learning is one of the main reasons children go to school in the first place. Given the heated discussions and insistence on particular types of clothing worn, we might expect uniforms to directly improve academic performance.

They don’t. There is no convincing evidence that school uniforms are among the factors that directly enhance learning. However, there is evidence that uniforms could indirectly support classroom management, for example by helping to remove distractions so students adapt faster to their assignments.

Instead of discussing whether uniforms are good or bad, then, let’s refocus our energies on creating better dress patterns and fairer rules than school uniforms, with the goal of supporting educational outcomes.

Uniforms as a form of class disguise: an illustration of students in a classroom from The Illustrated London News in 1891.
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From equality to equity

Since there is no direct link between uniforms and academic performance, why insist on dressing students alike? History provides some of the answers.

In the 19th century, when school uniforms became common along with compulsory education, a kind of equality was achieved by treating all students equally. The uniforms provided “social camouflage” by removing the outward signs of class differences.

A lasting benefit of school uniforms is that they reduce students’ “competition dress”: the social pressure to wear certain clothes.

Read More: Does Wearing a School Uniform Improve Student Behavior?

Nowadays, however, the debate on currencies eludes the question of how to treat students equally is not necessarily the same as treating them fairly. Indeed, research highlights a need for fairness: to get more equal results it may be necessary to treat students differently.

Logically, if equality and identity were directly related, school uniforms and school uniform policies should have a neutral or positive impact on all students. But this is not the case.

Design of clothing or policies on what clothing can be worn when and by whom poorer students, girls, religious minorities and students of different genders disadvantage. Together, these student groups make up over half of the school population.

Studies have shown that girls are more active when wearing a sports uniform.

Students are not uniform

We know that uniforms are less expensive than non-uniform alternatives on a student’s entire school career. But the high initial cost of uniforms can be a significant burden for students from low-income families.

Some students also attend every other day because they share a uniform with a brother or skip school until they manage to buy a missing uniform. It is a sad irony that the same tool designed to encourage equal access to education has become a barrier for some even before they walk through the school gates.

But beyond the cost, uniform design and policy can directly impact girls’ ability to participate in physical activity or lunchtime play.

Read more: Why do schools want all students to look the same?

At a basic level, kids simply aren’t likely to show their underwear if they cycle to school in the regulation uniform. Conversely, girls’ uniforms often restrict a full range of motion and inhibit sports while playing or the ability to enjoy the jungle gym.

Studies have shown that girls are more active when wearing a sports uniform (in addition to scheduled sport) than on regular uniformed days and are more willing to ride a bike or choose active transport if they have a sports-style uniform.

For older girls, feeling comfortable and unexposed is a key factor in participating in sports or games during breaks. Yet some schools still do not offer an alternative choice to the skirt. For overweight children, unflattering clothing can create a disincentive to participate in physical activity.

Religious minority groups, despite being members of the school community, are often not welcomed by the design and policies of school uniforms. And strict school uniform policies routinely ignore the needs of transgender students.

Read More: 4 Reasons Why Schools Should Allow Students to Wear Sports Uniforms Every Day

Better uniforms for better learning

Clearly, same treatment no longer means right treatment. We should rethink our approach to equity and allow flexibility to achieve similar results.

In fact, all students could benefit from a general rethink, from ensuring uniform clothing is protected from the sun to allowing students to dress according to weather conditions. There is no need to freeze during an off-season cold season in November simply because it is school policy that summer uniforms must be worn in the summer months.

Ultimately, we should move beyond binary debates about whether school uniforms are good or bad and focus on improving uniform clothing and policies with equity, well-being and fairness in mind.

This means designing uniforms that are comfortable to wear, allow for free movement, allow for physical activity, and encourage active transport choices to and from school.

Above all, wearing the uniform should support mental and physical comfort, and most importantly, learning.

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