Should school uniforms be compulsory? We asked five experts

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Whether schools should mandate a uniform is a controversial issue. Some believe wearing the same clothes smooths out inequality. Others see uniforms as authoritarian; believing them a symbol of repression, stifling freedom of thought and individuality.

We asked five experts from various fields whether school uniforms should be compulsory. Rather surprisingly, among the experts at least, there was little division.

Peter Wilson - Developmental psychologist - YES

A school uniform can instil or support a sense of equality among students, as well as reducing social status comparisons many children find challenging. Looser school-dress boundaries could add social pressure on many kids' choice of clothing. They may perceive others judging them on their choice, or feel it reflects their personality or status. In the extreme, clothing styles can reinforce in-groups and out-groups at school.

Due to associated constitutional principles of freedom, uniforms are less common in the US than in Australia and the UK. Free choice of clothing can indeed promote a sense of independent thought and expression. But this needs to be balanced against the issues raised above. And school-aged kids still have opportunities to express their individuality with clothing, choice of pastimes, interests and so on – all outside of school.

On balance, school uniforms are good for kids. There is even a suggestion they can help promote better discipline which, in turn, can enhance academic performance. But whatever the choice of uniform, it should not restrict movement.

Sue Roffey - Educational psychologist - NO

School uniform is an outward symbol of school identity and sometimes heralded as promoting a sense of belonging. But there is extensive literature on school belonging and school uniform never features as a way to achieve that. Supportive and respectful relationships, and a sense of achievement, are what determine how a student feels about their school. And teachers who penalise a student for not abiding by uniform rules risk this relationship.

Belonging can be inclusive or exclusive. Exclusive belonging is where groups only accept those like them and often promote a sense of superiority. School uniform can give that message. It can say: 'this uniform shows we are from an elite school'. We already have serious division in our society. School uniform can be an outward sign of who is 'worthy' of privilege and who isn't.

Jeffrey Thomas - Behaviour expert - NO

Some proponents of school uniforms believe they contribute to better student behaviour. But research on this is inconclusive. Some evidence suggests that, because uniforms create a sense of equality, they could help reduce bullying. But this argument can be countered by knowledge that bullying is a product of deeper power imbalances that exist in schools with and without a mandated uniform.

The equality, or 'sameness', of uniforms may actually disengage some children for whom self-expression through dress is fundamentally important. Research suggests the quality of teacher-student relationships is superior in schools without compulsory uniforms. And quality student-teacher relationships are considered a leading strategy for preventing disengaged student behaviour.

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Victoria Rawlings - Education researcher - NO

Uniforms may seem to obscure economic differences. But my research indicates young people wearing uniforms still face marginalisation due to the way they style their hair and wear makeup, or because of their bags or jewellery. These elements are given meanings associated with class, sexuality and culture which lend themselves to hierarchies of power and to discrimination. So it's impossible to eliminate differences of social class just by having a uniform.

Depending on how uniform policies are constructed and mandated, they can also be restrictive for young people who are transgender or gender diverse, or simply uncomfortable in the uniform assigned to them due to their gender. Research shows skirts and dresses restrict young girls' movements, which makes girls less active at breaktime and prevents them from sitting comfortably on the floor.

Minority groups bear the brunt of uniform policing, demonstrating these policies privilege and punish certain kinds of students and, in doing so, contribute to a culture that privileges those already in positions of power.

Renae Barker - Law lecturer - NO

In the 2016 census, 9 per cent of people under 18 years identified as being in a minority religion, such as Islam and Hinduism. Many uniforms fail to take this diversity into account. Schools are given a wide discretion to the application of uniform policies. Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act 2010, for instance, states: 'An educational authority may set and enforce reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students'.

Schools are also required to 'take into account the views of the school community' but not all do. In one case against a Christian college, a Victorian court held the school's uniform policy, that prohibited head coverings 'related to a non-Christian faith' (the student was a Sikh), breached the anti-discrimination provisions of the Equal Opportunity Act.

While school uniforms should not be compulsory, schools should be able to set minimum standards. These must be flexible enough to take into account the school's religious and cultural diversity. A school may have set colours or uniform items and allow students from diverse backgrounds to wear religious and culturally appropriate dress in those colours with other items.

Jeffrey Thomas is a Lecturer in Behaviour Management at the University of Tasmania.

Peter Wilson is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Australian Catholic University.

Renae Barker is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Western Australia.

Sue Roffey is an Honorary Associate Professor, School of Education at the University of Exeter.

Victoria Rawlings is an Academic Fellow, University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The Conversation