There are many once-commonplace practices that the education profession now looks back on with a certain level of bemusement and/or horror: corporal punishment, copperplate handwriting, chalk and talk. Is school uniform ready to join the list of relics?
Credit where it’s due, uniform has evolved. It has not been entirely immune to the influence of fashion, hence school caps mostly dying out since the ’60s, although as with knee high socks fashion may yet bring them back under different auspices. Moreover, it’s undeniable that uniform serves a purpose and continues to have its ardent supporters, not least as a visible symbol of equality and community. On the other hand, it also serves as a straitjacket, a restrictive piece of kit that prevents too much expression of individuality. What we have now is an enlightened generation bursting to break free of the drab greys, blues and blacks that make up the standard school uniform.
In The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up Children the Dutch Way by American expat Rina Mae Acosta, the author eulogises the benefits of liberating children from the shackles of authoritarianism. Acosta is primarily preaching to helicopter parents who don’t allow their children the space to make mistakes but there are lessons to be learned by educators too. Obviously, uniform plays only a tiny part in social and cultural practice, yet just as it acts as a discernible signifier of unity, it is also clearly representative of an authority above and beyond those who are forced to wear it. Summing up the classic argument from nonconformist teens, Dutch schoolboy Seegert Kruse, 14, mystified by the very idea of his British counterparts donning regimented clothing, recently told The Times Magazine, “Uniforms are a bad idea because you can’t express yourself… Sometimes you just want to wear green.”
The counter-argument is that not everyone – especially not adolescents – is comfortable expressing themselves. Money (or, rather, lack of it) may hinder individual expression. There is also a sense that uniforms force their wearers to find more creative means of expression. Status anxiety has been described as the enemy of education and uniform is felt to remove this: no-one need worry about what to wear. While it is arguable that non-uniform days always create anxiety as pupils suddenly feel pressured to flaunt their personal identity, this would no longer hold true were it just like any other day.
The Dutch may be notoriously tolerant and relaxed, to the point that some Brits associate Amsterdam with its liberal attitudes toward sex and drugs as much as it is bicycles and tulips. However, league tables of happiness routinely place them above us, the great irony being that they don’t care about league tables anywhere near as much as us. It’s instructive to hear Dutch teenagers, all seemingly comfortable in their own skin, attest that they could attend school in a bin bag and it really wouldn’t matter.
Such a laissez-faire attitude is the result of long-held cultural customs but one way in which we could take a small step towards our own culture of positive self-determination is to replicate the more relaxed attitude towards uniform. With a pleasing knock-on effect for teacher wellbeing… name me one teacher who takes any form of satisfaction from disciplining students for uniform infringements?! Surely, in time, dictating what students can wear will seem as archaic as caning them.
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