Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Case Against School Uniforms

A few years back, my then-high-school-attending son received a detention. Not for inappropriate language or behaviour, but solely because his shirt-tail was untucked. Although I allow some room in his narration of his universe for embellishment and even, at times, truth-twisting, I believed him on this one. And that is because, over the several years previous, I had become acquainted with the Uniformists.

My children all went to public schools, and their elementary and high schools promulgated strict dress codes. From the outset, I was never completely in favour of all this uniformity. Being a child of the 60s, I was required to wear a tunic for precisely one year, which was abandoned after it was “recognized” that this “stifled self-expression and creativity.” I use quotation marks because the received wisdom in these Oh-Oh years is quite different – now, uniforms are supposed to “create an environment conducive to learning,” a sense of “community among students,” and, not least, a muting of the intense competitive consumerism that lurks among the bad memories of we who are now parents ourselves. Fair enough; the schools my children frequented were good schools, and they were fixed (fixated?) on uniforms. So I could hardly join these communities hoping to make them conform to my thinking. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t ask questions. And, with that detention fresh in my mind, the question became: How uniform is uniform enough? One of the schools insisted on a certain type of shoe, the other that white oxford-style shirts or t-shirts are no longer acceptable, only polo shirts, with the knit collars and the three buttons. There was always some newer affectation, for example that shirts be monogrammed with the school name/logo.
Our high school is blessed to have a devoted cadre of volunteers who organized and ran the uniform store, generating tens of thousands of dollars a year, all of which was spent on the kids. These monies provide many bits and pieces which are really the school board’s sadly neglected responsibility (new musical instruments, a paint job more often than once every seven years, equipment for classrooms, computers, libraries, etc., etc.) and some true luxuries (lavish graduation exercises, an unbelievable number of academic prizes for graduates, international exchange trips). So uniforms also functioned as an invisible school fee, over and above the taxes that we all contributed. Fair enough, but maybe we should be more up-front about this. Maybe, too, we should organize to demand more money from our governments, or for better use of the existing funds from our school boards.
Another thing about these uniforms really bothered me -- their monochromicity. Why should our schools be sensory deprivation zones? Why white and grey? Why can’t a shirt style be prescribed, but blue, pink or yellow versions be permitted as well, in addition to the white? I never used bleach before my kids entered school! And though it was a minor concern on balance, I regret the environmental degradation these white shirts necessitated.

The truth that surprised me most was that nearly every parent I spoke with felt blessed by uniforms: they were relieved to be delivered from daily arguments about appropriate dress, or from the need to replace each fashion fad their children Exhausted. School officials wanted the monogrammed shirts in part, it seemed, because many of the young women at high school routinely buy extremely tight, skimpy versions of the currently requisite button-down oxfords. No one ever adequately explained to me why, beyond colour and low-heel requirements, a particular brand of shoe was necessary.
Why can’t we parents face head-on the challenges that uniforms are supposed to address? If we have a problem with the sluttish dress of some of our daughters, or the exorbitance of the latest trend in jeans, we should face these issues forthrightly, not cover them over with grey flannel! Buck up, I say! Learn to say “No, that is not appropriate dress for school.” No further explanation is necessary. Our authority can be as arbitrary as “We are teaching you how to live up to society’s expectations. When you are a responsible adult, you can chose to conform or not, but at least you will know how to dress like a middle class prig.” If our kids will not obey our edicts concerning tattoos, body piercing or outlandish hair colour, are we really doing them any favours by abdicating our authority in favour of the school bureaucracy?
Finally, let me tell you about an unfortunate secret truth which lurks beneath the thrall of the Uniformists: it is the way it makes public schools and their students resemble, in the most superficial of ways, the exclusive private schools that pepper my Montreal neighbourhood. And that is a value that I do not share. We should be proud that our kids go to public schools, where all races, religions and socio-economic groups are represented and form a community, just like the real world to which they aspire. If there are improvements necessary in our schools to positively influence behaviour and comportment, let’s make these changes deep ones, not as superficial as the clothes on their backs, or colour of their hair.
My kids love their schools. And I’m grateful for all the hard work put in by the decimated custodial staff, the devoted teachers, concerned administrators and dynamic parent volunteers. I know by the middle of high school, my son shouldn’t be wandering about with his shirttail hanging out. But can you blame me if I wish the administration was more concerned with the originality of my kids’ minds, and less concerned about the conventionality of their dress? In the final analysis, shouldn’t their education be more about content, and less about form?

Bev Akerman, formerly a molecular genetics researcher, is now a Montreal writer. The Meaning of Children, her award-winning first book is available from Amazon)

(This essay was published in The Montreal Gazette, Maclean's Magazine, March 7, 2005, in Cynthia A. Bily, (Ed.) Students’ Rights. Introducing Issues With Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press. 2009, and elsewhere)


  1. One of the biggest reasons for enforcing things like "tucking in of shirts", and "doing up your top button" is because it distracts kids away from rebellion. They rebel against what they may view as the most menial rule, because they see it as the least necessary, and it actually prevents them from playing up in other areas.
    Effectively, it's a sly but effective form of distraction used on children, particularly teenagers, to prevent them causing trouble.

    1. I think it's much more important to teach children to be true to themselves and to think for themselves. Of course, we also have a responsibility to teach them boundaries. I'm not disputing that. In my opinion, it's much more beneficial for schools to have a dress code that states what is not acceptable and let the students choose from what is acceptable. For example, skirts may not be shorter than when you hang your hands down at your sides, spaghetti straps are not allowed at school, you may not let your underwear show as part of your style, clothing advertising alcohol or cigarettes is not permitted, etc. And I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but a dress code is not an effective form of distraction. Teens who want to cause trouble, will cause trouble, because there is usually a deeper underlying cause that needs to be addressed.

  2. someone i know once told me that, as parents, one of most important choices is to pick the level at which our children rebel. if we are strict about haircut & clothes, they rebel by wearing torn jeans or punk hair. but if we're totally permissive about everything, the kid has to take heroin to get our attention...i've never forgotten this advice. particularly because this guy's kid had taken heroin...

  3. I enjoyed your blog post, but I especially love that piece of sage advice--it makes a lot of sense to me and I think I may have unconsciously practiced it while our kids were growing up. Great blog!

    1. Hi Sandra

      I assume you mean this? "If we have a problem with the sluttish dress of some of our daughters, or the exorbitance of the latest trend in jeans, we should face these issues forthrightly, not cover them over with grey flannel! Buck up, I say! Learn to say “No, that is not appropriate dress for school.” No further explanation is necessary."

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Beverly,
      Thanks for the insight of the past and how we deal with issues that are so controversial as dress in the schools. Awareness in our children with the rebellous traditions is a positive move to finally gaining control in what has for decades or longer been a problem.
      Thank You,
      Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Rosemary. My youngest child just graduated from high school. One of her first acts was to get rid of her uniform...on the one hand, I do think it gave the kids a sense of community. On the other: uniforms are for the military, that's what I keep thinking. School shouldn't be a restriction zone. Not totally, I don't think.

  4. My two sons (now 22 and 23) used faded blue jeans and rock band t-shirts as a form of creative expression when they were teenagers. Things like making sure shirt tails are tucked in probably makes the wrong things seem important. It seems like you fostered creativity despite the uniform requirement.

  5. So many distractions are eliminated by a school uniform. Children (ie those who are not yet old enough to trust with the vote) are bombarded continually by advertisers persuading them to want the latest fashion fads, cosmetics and other unnecessary accessories. Dress choices reflect class, culture, economics and social status. Requiring a uniform WHILE IN SCHOOL just removes all these distractions from the learning environment, and eliminates one thing school staff have to police regarding their students' behavior. It's bad enough when a student is sent home for "inappropriate dress." It's worse that a school teacher or administrator has had to waste time sending them home. Kids have plenty of time outside of school hours to express themselves through their clothing choices.

  6. Hi Bev, I just had a few comments. First of all I'd like to say that I was very much raised in the public school system until I entered high school three years ago--a boarding school in Canada. Once I began wearing a uniform I could instantly see its benefits. Mornings are now quicker, people are more open and accepting, and the school, as a whole, looks more presentable.

    Our uniform is quite simple; the students in the picture you posted (walking outside our dining hall) are in their formal uniform and it is worn for special occasions. We our proud of wearing this as we are able to showcase our achievements (colors ties, pins, etc) and represent our school. The day to day classroom uniform we wear is much simpler, consisting of a tucked-in polo with pants or a skirt. Polos and sweaters come in a variety of colors thus eliminating the prejudices against "races, religions and socio-economic groups" that you claim. You also seem to insinuate that private schools are not diverse; this is not only wrong, it is the opposite of the truth. Around 40 countries are represented here. Diversity occurs not only in "races, religions and socio-economic groups," but ideas; we can look past the superficial and focus on education because of our uniforms.

    I am proud of my uniform. Please don't associate our school to the ideas you propagate about the peppiness of uniforms by using a picture of my fellow classmates to illustrate your point when you don't know enough about our school.

  7. i understand your arguments, but I am pro-uniform or pro-dress code, whichever is the best for the school involved. My sons went to a dress-code school and my daughter went to a uniform school.

    I completely agree that parents should be able to say to their children "no, that's not appropriate for school' and "no, you're not wearing that." But I also believe that we need to pick our battles, and if this battleground is eliminated, it's something that they don't have to think about. Taking this out of the equation gives you that much more room for something else.

    I went to school in the 60s too - the girls in elementary school wore tunics but uniforms were gone by the time I hit high school. My mother was very anti-uniform and she refused to allow me to wear a tunic. The result was I was the only girl in the entire school population not wearing a tunic. I can tell you that this was not fun. The other students didn't like it and the teachers didn't like it. However, my mother's stance was she would take the school board to court if they did anything about it. No, it was not fun. Maybe this colours how I feel about uniforms, I don't know.

    My daughter got rid of her uniform the second she was able to, and she and the boys went to the standard teen uniform of jeans and tees when they went to CEGEP. None was worse for the uniform experience. In fact, my sons have always been comfortable in suits and dress clothes because it is what they know. I've watched some friends' sons struggle with this. While it's not the end of the world to adapt to dress clothes later than sooner, it is nice to see my sons comfortable no matter what they wear - dress up or dress down. A little thing, but life is full of little things.

    And a final note about private schools. Because of our public school options where we lived, we chose to send our children to private schools. Both schools were very generous and had a signifiant number of students receiving bursaries or some type of financial assistance. My children went to school with students of many ethnicities, faiths, and socioeconomic backgrounds, something they would not have done had they stayed in our area and attended our public school. They had friends who were extremely wealthy and friends who were on social assistance. if they stayed in our community, attending our public school, they would have been with kids just like them all the time, day in and day out never leaving the community unless they were with us, as a family. Putting our children in the schools of our choice forced them out of their/our comfort zone and into the world where they experienced things we would never have been able to provide if we had kept them close to home.

    I am not anti public school and sending them to public school was the original plan. But we need to make the right choices for our families.


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