Thursday, 23 August 2012

School Uniforms

The whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school

- William Shakespeare, All the World's A Stage

There's been quite a lot in the news recently on the price of school uniforms, but that's not what this blog posting is about. Rather, I'm looking at the history of school uniforms, their function (as given by proponents), and how well school uniforms work.

School uniforms are a relative recent innovation. By relative, of course, I don't mean wholly modern, but it only dates from around the 16th century. Here it was the children who attended charity schools that first wore uniforms, to clothe them as cheaply as possible. But it was much more recently in the 19th century that the wearing of uniforms spread widely elsewhere:

Uniforms were first instituted in 16th Century England at the charity schools for poor children. It was not until the 19th Century that the great English public schools began instituting uniforms and even later for them to be widely accepted at state schools--especially state elementary schools. (1)

The reason for school uniforms was partly to prevent public school boys from competing in how they were clothed to show off their family wealth, strutting like finely dressed peacocks - all of which worked against any school ethos. Before uniforms were introduced, the expense on clothes was actually greater:

A school boy even in the late 18th Century could own a dozen shirts, almost as many cravats, half a dozen waist coats and tightly fitted breeches, hats, gloves, stockings, hankerchiefs, and heeled shoes. Their wardrobes became much more complicated in the 19th Century, especially as sports became more organized and specialized sport equipment became required. (1)

We catch a glimpse of the boundary between the older regime, and the newer public school ethos in the book Tom Brown's Schooldays, where bullying is, at first, rife, and the boys are largely left alone by the masters to indulge in all kinds of brutality against the weaker pupils. Games were chaotic, badly organised, and part of the change in regime was the taming of games into organised sports with rules and referees. Thomas Arnold, the educator who is probably the most famous for initiating the changes, took what was there, and made it a powerful instrument of conformity rather than anarchy:

He accepted the two great features of English public schools, the liberty allowed to all, and the power exercised by the senior over the junior boys, but he bent all his energies to bring it about that the liberty should not be mere licence, and that the power should be exercised for good and not for than evil, as had too often been the case. (2)

It is within this context that changes were made to tame the unruly school - including the introduction of school uniforms:

The English public school in the 18th and early 19th century had become anarchic, dangerous places in which boys from aristocrats and wealthy families as they wished and played voluntary games in whatever worn and battered gear was to hand. Interestingly many of our most popular modern sports (rugby, soccer, football, cricket, and baseball) originated in the informal, off rough and chaotic play of English school boys. Conditions were so bad that many parents refused to send their boys and instead had them educated at home until they were ready for university. The uniformity in clothing was one of the measures designed to replace chaos with disciplined order. (1)

So from a symbol of a charity school, of poverty, very swiftly school uniforms came to represent high status. This travelled across the empire as new schools were founded in the colonies:

The British school uniform followed empire as new public schools were founded in the colonies which adopted the styles set by the established schools--no matter how unsuitable to tropical climates. (1)

States schools began to follow the lead of the public schools, requiring uniforms. The Education Act of 1870 committed Britain to financing a modern school system for every child, and uniforms became widespread.

The advantages of school uniforms are given in a neat summary by David Jamison:

The major justifications for such policies include the following: Uniform policies; (1) eliminate outward evidence of class/income disparities, (2) reduce incidences of theft/violence over expensive brand names, (3) head off the possibility of gang violence resulting from the purposeful or accidental display of gang colors/symbols, (4) eliminate general distractions over the types of clothes worn or not worn by students, (5) recognizes the shared commitment among students of learning as the most important duty, and, (6) creates a sense of community within the school.

Opponents of uniform policies argue that the emphasis on uniform policies attract attention away from other policy changes that could and should be made toward improving the school environment and the process of learning. They also argue that school uniforms punitively constrain self-expression manifested through dress and therefore impinge on the rights of children. (3)

Jamison looks at clothing, and how uniform functions. He notes how

Clothing has served, probably as much or even more so than any other single aspect of material culture, as the symbolic representation of group identity (Eicher, 1995). Nuances of color, style and (drapery) can serve as the basis for in and out group identification (Roach and Eicher, 1979). (3)

Nowhere is this more prominent than in youth culture - outside of the constraints of school uniform, where young people, drawn in by peer pressure, have imbibed the advertising of brand as a powerful image of "coolness". It is frightening how little critical scrutiny is given by them to their own seduction by what Vance Packard called "The Hidden Persuaders". Jamison notes how:

The emphasis on "coolness", a term that, along with some derivatives, captures the essence of the adolescent value system, is so overwhelming that it pervades the thought, actions and speech of many adolescents (Widdicombe and Woffitt, 1995). According to Danesi "conformity takes place around outward features--looks, personal hygiene, body composition, clothes, language, music, and "one elusive but all important outwardly demonstrated inward state--Coolness" (1994).

The social appropriateness of the brand named clothes (the "totems" of this discussion) of adolescents in helping to establish and fulfill social roles and identity and the impact of peer pressure on the individual desire to obtain and to display brand named clothes is also apparent

Children lacking access to such symbols find themselves at a disadvantage relative to those who do. They are marked as unable to afford the symbols of adolescent belongingness, and therefore carry the negative stigma of poverty (Elliot and Leonard, 2004) or, perhaps even worse, are seen as unable to understand what the proper symbols are and are therefore marked as socially backwards. As children mature, brand names are often replaced by life-style specific clothing/uniforms that reflect specific interests (e.g.; musical genres) or attitudes (e.g.; the basic black of neo-punk nihilists). (3)

It's clear that we are back on similar grounds to the public schools before uniforms, where the style and kind of clothing is used to demonstrate an appearance of wealth. Of course, in the case of designer clothes, such wealth may in fact be deceptive, rather like the individual who is on income support payments but nonetheless manages somehow to have a smart phone. By phone companies pricing monthly charges, smart phone tariffs can become in reach, and again demonstrate an appearance of escaping the poverty trap.

School uniforms replace the adolescent means of identifying and boundary creation by means of brand names clothes with a single symbol; as such they run counter to the peer group, and its seduction by advertising.

Jamison notes that a survey on school uniforms suggested that a uniform policy "may result in a heightened sense of community and in the breaking down of social barriers that are based upon the ability of some children to dress better than others."

However, some parts of school uniform policy are inconclusive. Students attempt in various ways to personalize their "standardized" outfits in a manner that allows self-expression despite the perceived constraints of the uniform policy. Also:

Research regarding the effectiveness of school uniform implementation remains inconclusive. Supported by studies which indicate that school uniforms have little influence in reducing delinquency or gang activity, parents of a few students in districts with mandatory school uniform dress codes have challenged such policies in court (ETS, 1998)  (4)

There is another problem with school uniforms, which I can note from personal experience. While a uniform means that discrepancies over income are removed within the school, like the charity schools where uniforms began, they can act as a badge to identify poorer, less academic schools. In Jersey, there was a stigma attached to children who went to St Helier Boys or St Helier Girls. This was the equivalent of the Secondary Modern school in the UK - it was the place for those who had failed the 11 plus. The uniform was a distinctive badge that highlighted that failure.

The ending of the 11 plus, and the introduction of the Comprehensive School meant that the kind of stigma associated with the uniform diminished. But it is notable - in Jersey, for example - that States schools have a uniform which consists of trousers or skirt, white shirt, school tie, and a jumper with the school badge, where the private schools have blazers with the school badge on them.

In the case of Victoria College, this is an unmistakable garish black blazer with a golden trim around it; this replaced in the 1970s a much more subdued black woolen blazer with badge. A badge on a jumper is not instantly visible, but a blazer flaunts the school much more visibly.

Class distinctions can still be a side effect of uniform policy, and in this respect, we are still living with a legacy from the 19th century.

(3) Idols of the Tribe: Brand Veneration, Group Identity, and the Impact of
School Uniform Policies. David J. Jamison, Academy of Marketing Studies Journal. Vol: 10:1, 2006

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