Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble




Uniforms and uniformity

Uniformity of clothing is believed to lead to uniform behaviour, and uniform behaviour is supposed to lead to conformity of thought.

One of the reasons for dressing soldiers in uniform is to make them into a cohesive group that can commit acts of violence that none of them would commit individually. Two neighbouring schools with different uniforms are more likely to be antagonistic to each other than other young people in their normal, informal clothing. If you collect a group of people together and dress them all in the same way, they are likely to develop a group identity and a group ethic that is nothing to do with their personal identity or their individual perceptions of right and wrong. At the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in the Chicago gangland, where it was the gangs who wore the uniforms, the only rule about uniform was that you couldn't wear one.

In Britain successive governments have apparently thought that children learn better if they are obliged to wear a uniform. Schools are commended for their insistence of details of uniform. It seems to be thought more important to make children dress like each other than it is to allow them to be comfortable and wear what suits them.

There are three reasons given for encouraging schools to have uniforms uniforms disguise differences in family income, uniforms prevent children from being teased because they are wearing unfashionable clothes and uniforms give children a sense of pride in their schools.

Let us look at these arguments one by one. Uniforms disguise differences in income, it is said. Cheap white shirts, second-hand uniforms, darned and patched clothes are presumably invisible, but there is another, and more important reason for doubting that a uniform disguises difference of wealth. Sometimes it emphasises it. At a comprehensive school where I taught for a short time one boy in my tutor-group could not come to school for a week because he had only jeans and no trousers. The law says that children have to attend school, but if their parents cannot afford exactly the right clothes the school will assume the right to send them home again.

Uniforms prevent children being teased for wearing unfashionable clothes. I have heard this argument from schoolchildren, and it is certainly true that where there is a school uniform one reason for teasing has been removed, but the inclination to tease has not been tackled. You may still get teased for wearing glasses, or having a stammer, or being timid and not being able to stand up for yourself. It is impossible to remove every possible reason for teasing, but the important thing is not to remove the causes for teasing, but to remove the wish to tease. This is far easier when the relationship between children and staff is relaxed and friendly, and unfriendly teasing is completely out of place.

It is also true that the enforcement of uniform rules encourages the wish to rebel. Students going home from school loosen their ties as soon as they get out of the school gates. One of my friends at Eton wore red socks underneath his regulation black ones purely from a sense of rebellion. The girls in the photograph at the top of this text are heading for trouble at school because their skirts are too short. The staff find themselves repeatedly rebuking children for trivial breaches of the uniform rules, or having scenes with children who want to keep their coats on during lessons (or, in other schools, wanting to take them off). It is as if those in authority really believe that it is difficult to learn if you are wearing jeans or trying to keep warm. Children are actually given the impression that uniform is more important than what is being taught in the lessons.

The final excuse for having a uniform is that it gives children a sense of pride in their schools. Why is a sense of pride in one's school thought to be so important? Would not a personally fulfilling education be more desirable? Schools should be allowing children to develop their self-confidence, rather than encouraging them to be dependent on an institution. The school should be proud of its pupils, not the other way round.

When school students are all forced to wear the same clothes they express their individuality in some other way at one end of the scale by decorating their school bags and at the other by being aggressively disruptive.

The picture of a neat, orderly group of young people all in the same clothes is apparently a delight to the traditional eye, but the traditional eye misses much of what the uniform hides. The young people who look so neat and tidy are many of them resentful, and those who are not resentful are accepting a strangely negative training they are learning to do what is expected of them, whatever that may be, without reflecting on the rights and wrongs of it.

When I was in Japan in the 1990s it was not just the uniform that was dictated. Haircuts, walks and sitting positions were also prescribed, and I heard about one school where the children had to eat their midday meal in unison: a prefect stood at one side of the dining hall and shouted, 'Rice! Milk! Fish! Beans!' and everyone took a mouthful of the relevant item. Even to the most conventional British ears this must sound absurd, but prescribing a school uniform is the first step on the way to such absurdity. Other Western countries manage without school uniforms. The British have taken the first steps along the way to orchestrated eating.

The only situations in which people of any age need to wear uniform are when other people need to be able to recognise them and their function. There is no need to be able to recognise school-children. School uniform merely symbolises inferior status; that seems to be one of its principal objectives. If you are treated as inferior this kind of argument I have repeated over and over again if you are treated as inferior, you behave as if you are inferior.

Uniform creates an artificial distinction between teachers and students. This distinction not only prevents any genuinely friendly relationship, but also sets up a particular field of conflict. No rational objective is achieved, and much of value is lost.