School uniforms: who needs them?

In Australia, conforming to a school uniform policy is compulsory in most private, Catholic and state schools.
In Australia, conforming to a school uniform policy is compulsory in most private, Catholic and state schools. Photo: Michele Mossop

Following the Victorian government's ruling to allow girls to choose shorts and pants over dresses and skirts as uniforms, there is current community discussion in this subject in NSW. Do we need to open more varied school uniform rules for girls:  to allow them to wear a school uniform that is more traditionally male as now in Victoria. At present, the discussion is limited to reducing the disadvantage experienced by girls, through the introduction of trousers and pants options, removing the expectation on girls to wear dresses to school – gendered uniforms. But could we go further and get rid of school uniforms completely?

It seems to me that the discussion should be more about: "Is time up for school uniforms?" Should school children be given the freedom and responsibility to dress as they choose when they come to school? I have worked in schools that have tight uniform regulations, and in schools that have no uniforms. My preference is overwhelmingly for "no uniform" expectations, the West European model.

The existence of school uniforms owes much of its heritage to our British forbears. Many of our Australian school uniforms were modelled in the 19th century, from these British schools. School uniforms date back to the 16th century in Britain, the first school uniform thought to have been introduced in 1552 at Christ Hospital, London. Whereas the United States and most west European nations, such as Finland, Norway, France and Germany, reject the need for a school uniform. England and Ireland stand out as traditional wearers of school uniforms although there is no government regulation enforcing this.

Dresses and skirts are seen as too restrictive by many.
Dresses and skirts are seen as too restrictive by many. Photo: Michele Mossop

Closer to home, school uniforms have become all the rage. In China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan strict school uniform practices apply. In former British colonies like us:  Hong Kong, Singapore and South Africa, the application of regulated button-up blazers, ties sporting the school crest, and polished black leather lace-up shoes is rigorously applied to children, sometimes as young as five. Dresses for girls, sometimes to the ankle, shorts and long socks for boys, characterise many of these uniforms. Regulated summer and winter options, sports and music uniforms, all feature in the uniform requirements of some countries.

In Australia, conforming to a school uniform policy is compulsory in most private, Catholic and state schools. As Europe, and even Britain, has sought to relax many of the school dress rules, Australia has become increasingly strict with what children are allowed to wear to school. In keeping with our growing obsession with rules and regulations, we have imposed increasing "standards" on what is allowed and what is not allowed, in school uniforms. Our preoccupation with uniforms is rivalled only by that for league tables and competition.

The rationale for school uniforms is to create a level playing field – so the rich kids don't lord it over the poorer ones with their flashy jumpers and Nike trainers. The intention is to promote social equality and also to build school pride. The argument is that by everyone dressing the same, we can't tell which children are from homes that are more privileged. And that by wearing the school symbols and motifs, the branding on ties, blazers and backpacks, we encourage honour and respect for the school.

Our children can see through this. They see the homes we come from, the cars we arrive in, the clothes we adults are wearing. Most of our kids couldn't care less about these things. To think that young people build school pride on the basis of their school uniform is to further insult their intelligence and discernment.

Children value their school because of the way it stands for the values it purports to represent – the substance at the heart of its message, not because of the logo on the school tie. If they are treated well, with respect and courtesy at school, if their efforts are acknowledged and encouragedtheir sense of pride in their school will be nurtured. It doesn't take a neat and tidy pleated skirt or pressed and crested school blazer to achieve this.

Uniforms are often criticised for promoting the uniformity that characterises militarism. Of superiority and dominating masculinity. There might be an element of truth in this.

However, I suspect that school uniforms might be more about marketing a school. Could it be more about using the children to help defend the school against competition from the private school around the corner? In the less contemporary Australian schools, we continue to clothe children in outfits more suited to a 19th century London lifestyle than outdoorsy Australia. 

Reviewing what girls wear to school is a great beginning and hopefully this can be followed by a review of whether we need school uniforms at all. We can do without the expense and pass the responsibility of selecting and dressing themselves, onto our students.

Dr William McKeith is a former principal of PLCs Sydney and Armidale and current principal of Inner Sydney Montessori School.