Wednesday, 12 October 2011

School Uniformed

School uniformThere can be no doubt that school uniform can save a parent’s sanity. Yet as much as I value my sanity, I am about to dedicate this post to the conclusion that school uniforms are, overall, bad for us all in the sense they damage society as a whole.
The benefits of school uniform are obvious: there is no need to wonder what the child should wear in the morning, just as there is no need to buy the child the latest trending and expensive fashion-ware just so he/she can feel they are truly their peers’ peer. Potentially, a lot of money can be saved there while us parents can feel good about the equalizing / class leveling effect the uniform has on our kids' class.
However, I am of the opinion that money is not the most important thing in life (assuming one has enough to live comfortably by). Just as I think money is generally overrated, I think that the potential cost savings derived from school uniforms are a fine example for the way it is overrated. That is because having an open minded, free to think society, is a very worthwhile alternative to having a bit more money in the pocket. As for class leveling? There will always be the kids with the latest iPhone and the kids stuck with Nokia bricks.

One of the things that shocked me upon migrating from Israel to Australia was the matter of school uniforms. I’m still amazed at the sight of kids wearing suits and ties to school, or of girls wearing a hat that was the height of fashion back in the 18th century, together with a skirt no sane person would ever dream of wearing, all on a very cold day. Private schools seem like the main status symbol differentiating parents in Australia, yet the more prestigious the school the more restrictive and old fashioned its uniforms are. Odd.
Odd, because growing up in Israel I had very mild school uniforms: they came in the shape of a t-shirt with the school logo which I only had to wear for PE classes. Still, by now I got used to the state of things in Australia, and seeing a child wearing a suit to school doesn’t phase me much anymore.
At least until The Guardian started making me aware of them again.
My journey towards utter contempt for school uniforms started recently. I was visiting the UK and I got to read this Guardian article on school uniforms, published ahead of the beginning of the British school year. It reminded me of those old uncomfortable feelings I had with the strict school uniform codes imposed in Australia, and it also reminded me that in a bit more than a year my own son would have to start wearing those damn things.
A day or two later, The Guardian had readers’ letters published in relation to their article. One letter in particular grabbed my attention. Written by Peter James, who describes himself as a former head of a primary school, the letter states the following: “Uniforms induce uniform behaviour and are a control system”.
That was the hammer that hit the nail for me. After all, why did I have to suffer through four years of strict uniform code in the army if it wasn’t for the army’s obvious intention to keep me subdued and to keep me following orders? What else could be the purpose of school uniform, especially in their British like strict fashion, other than subduing children’s free spirits? After all, it is no coincidence that we had to wait for a British band to state aloud that “we don’t need no education”.

Shortly after the UK we visited Israel, where my nephew reminded me of the lightness of Israeli school uniform: his uniform set was in the shape of a collection of differently colored t-shirts, one of which had to be worn to school on designated days. Still a control system tool, but nothing as subduing as the British/Aussie model.
Today I got to read an article discussing Dutch [footballer] striker Dennis Bergkamp, probably my dearest sports person ever, and his current post retirement adventures. In the article Bergkamp gets to discuss his and his family's move back to their Netherlands origins after more than a decade as Londoners. One of the things he mentions was his inability to accept the lightness of Dutch school uniform codes following him getting used to the strict English system. Bergkamp's experience made me ask myself whether the Dutch raise dumb children? As far as I could tell, on the basis of me recently visiting the Netherlands in between the UK and Israel, the Dutch seem to be fairly nice people. It definitely did not feel as if they were in any way less intellectually capable than their British counterparts across the channel; if anything, they were all multilingual, unlike the typical Brit.
The question therefore remains. Why are we doing this? Why are we pushing our own children through the meat grinder of a strict school uniform system, knowing fully well that as we’re doing it we’re taking something away from them? Every parent will tell you their kids are the most important thing to them in the world, yet something very precious, the children's ability to establish a bit of an independent identity through their clothing, is robbed away from them in broad daylight.
There are lots of things Australia inherited from its British parent nation. School uniforms should not be in that list.

Image by PinkBallerina2008, Creative Commons license


Wicked Little Critta said...

Well thought out post. I never really thought a great deal about it before, (never had to wear a uniform to school, unless part of a team sport or band) but I do remember being a kid and thinking that it would've been nice to not have to compete fashion-wise with kids whose parents could afford more expensive clothing brands. I don't think kids think much about the control issue you mention. But it's worth considering.

One last thing: hats?!?

Moshe Reuveni said...

”I don't think kids think much about the control issue you mention”:
I agree, but I didn’t think much about it when I was a soldier either. I knew I hated the uniform, probably because it was so harshly enforced, and probably because you grow tired of wearing the same thing every day. BTW, one noticeable disadvantage with army uniform is that it makes the females of the species look significantly less attractive, and usually unjustifiably so.
The point is that regardless of whether you think about it or not, army uniforms are implemented for two primary purposes: to help control the ranks and to be able to impose authority. That last reason is obviously irrelevant for schools, but the first one certainly is.
As for hats: There is a point to wearing hats. The sun can be very harsh, you know, especially when coupled with the fair skins common to the population here. That aside, private schools in particular rely on branding themselves through tradition, and some of them (especially the girls’ only schools – an institution I find hard to accept for plenty of other reasons) enforce particularly silly and impractical wicker hats.