I’m buying our first school uniform this summer and I look at the list of items we need – the blouses, the apron, the gym gear, the crest, the tie – and all I can think is: uniforms don’t do what they’re supposed to do. All the reasons why people think they’re a good idea crumbled pre-Covid and we could certainly do without them now.
Primary schools across Ireland say nice things about nurturing the individual, about nurturing creativity, but when it comes to one of the earliest ways a tiny human being expresses their individuality and creativity – their looks – it is trampled upon mercilessly. This breaks my heart.
My lively four-year-old is learning about self-expression and is spending these summer days switching from a Moiana costume to a pink tutu. This will end on September 1st, when she will be forced into Navy Blue conformity in an education system that isn’t geared enough towards the individual anyway.
I’ve always hated her. The memories of getting up on cold, dark, wet mornings and being forced to put on an uncomfortable tie and a scratchy kilt forever ruined the whole daily dressing process for me. Or maybe it spent every day as a dreary duplicate of about 700 teenagers in gray.
Why do we continue to allow educators to deprive our children of their individuality at such a young age? Why do supporters keep hiding behind the lie that they are helping poorer students? And why, in our increasingly diverse society, are our uniforms based so heavily on an English public school model, even if my local school is one in north downtown Deis?
You could say that school uniforms level the playing field for children. If everyone is wearing the same outfit, there is less room for “other” children who cannot afford a cool wardrobe. But there are plenty of opportunities for them to brag about their parents’ salary. We have backpacks for that. And lunch boxes. And shoes. And haircuts. And your way of speaking.
There is always something, consistent or not. Bullies always find a way, uniform or not.
I also don’t see how it’s a cheaper option. Even if your school is flexible about where you get the uniforms from – ours still requires a rather expensive €35 school uniform for sports days – there are still the limitations of colour. It’s not easy to go to a charity store and find navy blue dungarees that are a certain size. If you need a specific color shirt, forget it. And I can’t imagine some of the cheaper generics being washed weekly for a year. They need to be replaced in the spring.
Uniforms don’t make life any easier for busy parents either. I would imagine the early hours are hellish when you’ve washed and forgotten to dry an important piece of clothing. It’s easier to throw on a t-shirt and jeans than it is to whip up a striped tie out of thin air. And when school ends at 1:30 p.m., you need a second outfit for the rest of the afternoon anyway.
Dressing every child the same way, in mostly inferior, ill-fitting clothes, while they are at school supposedly encourages good behavior and raises standards. At least that’s what the uniform advocates say. But most of the evidence supporting these theories is anecdotal. And the idea that a uniform alone could do all of this is insane. Plus, it’s belied by the fact that most of Europe achieves levels of performance that surpass our own with no crest in sight.
Then there are the very real facts that uniform policies reinforce gender and racial as well as class divisions, such as racist hairstyle policies, sexist skirt rules (disturbingly, polls say a third of girls say they have been sexually harassed while wearing their uniforms), and discrimination against trans students.
The argument that they prepare students for the workplace is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Nobody dresses smart for work anymore, which has been accelerated by the need to work from home. In most professions, suits now end up in the bin along with briefcases.
The teachers do a great job. They raise our children superbly, for the most part, and it’s a tough job that few of us would do, and fewer could do. I’m sure they would rather just teach and mentor than be told to check the color of everyone’s socks or that the top button is buttoned up every morning.
What ends up happening is school uniform rules are enforced to enforce rules. For these arbitrary rules serve no purpose other than to be something to be obeyed. Our children are learning that they must do what they are told, regardless of the absurdity, just because the teachers are in charge. If our schools want to teach any life lesson about following orders, no matter how ridiculous, they definitely do.
I’m not optimistic that there will be any real conversation about uniforms – they seem to be something of a sacred cow in Irish society. But isn’t it high time to at least make them optional? I think if parents really had a choice, many of us would.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/whatever-way-you-dress-it-up-i-cannot-see-the-purpose-of-enforcing-school-uniforms-41846717.html However you dress it, I fail to see the purpose of enforcing school uniforms