Thursday, June 09, 2005

Skool uniform

Laban Tall posted about his former school and it's uniform policy, amongst other things.
"Isn't it just a strange coincidence that you can pretty much exactly correlate a school's results inversely with the number of boys wearing their shirts outside their trousers?"

One of the reasons for my skepticism about uniforms is that the above statement doesn't stand up to too much scrutiny. The best performing school in Glasgow, by a pretty decisive margin, has a rather lax uniform policy and most of the students go for the goth/grunge look that is so popular with Glasgow's West End youth. Aesthetically displeasing certainly but it doesn't seem to have affected their results in any discernible way.

And in international comparisons, the thesis breaks down completely: the Scandinavians (yup - the bloody Swedes again) don't go for uniform but have by any objective measurement, higher academic standards.

Nevertheless, I think I'm becoming converted, and not just because I think I'd cut a dashing figure in a gown (although I think I'd feel a complete pillock with a mortar-board). Conservatives tend to favour uniform as a mechanism of social control and the liberal-left traditionally tend to recoil at this, preferring that children be allowed to "express their individuality." But there's no getting away from the fact that school children need a bit of controlling : I firmly believe that on a visit to this school, no sane person - whether of the left or right - could possibly come to the conclusion that less, rather than more, order is what's needed here. Furthermore, uniform is a much more subtle mechanism for establishing the appropriate roles for staff and pupils than some other measures that could be taken. Or to put it another way, I'd rather work in a school with uniform than one with metal detectors.

But there are also one or two specifically left-wing arguments that one can make for a uniform policy. Pupils, left to their own devices, do not express their individuality. Instead, one gets rampant consumerism, with pupils vying for status with the latest, most funky labeled goods. In this context, uniform can be a force for equality - as well as being a mechanism for ensuring the classroom is one of the few advertising-free places that pupils will ever attend. Also, connected to the struggle for status is the fact that non-uniformed pupils express not their individuality but their membership of certain groups - which can cause conflict in what is supposed to be a learning environment.

Finally, although the Scandinavians don't equate the wearing of uniform with good education - many people in Britain do, and this has a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy aspect to it: a school adopts a uniform policy and this gives aspirational parents in the area the impression that the place is on the up and up. People are less inclined to bus their children elsewhere, the role rises as the school becomes more successful in holding on to those pupils in it's catchment area and eventually the results do improve.

Uniform is no panacea and one of the reasons that I've not been so fussed about it in the past is that too much is claimed for it. But in the on-going struggle with the forces of barbarism, the shock-troops of the Enlightenment have sustained a few serious set-backs and we need all the tools we can lay our hands on.

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