With new stories of children sent home for failure to comply with their school’s uniform or appearance rules, we seem to be back to the question of whether schools should be allowed to dictate students’ appearance. On one side you have those supporting the students’ individuality, arguing their rights and freedom of expression are being infringed by the schools. On the other, those who argue that the students and their parents knew the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.
I don’t believe either of these positions quite cuts to the core of the issue. The answer to whether schools should be allowed to dictate pupils’ appearance must surely lie in what we believe schools should be achieving, what we believe their purpose is in respect of how they shape children.
Firstly, let’s just put to rest a couple of fallacies that are sometimes trotted out in support of uniform policies: that they save parents money, and that they create equality (thus reducing bullying). School uniforms are expensive, and children outgrow them at a rate of knots. Furthermore, children don’t wear uniforms outside school, thus creating a need for normal clothes in addition to the uniform. Normal clothes that could have also been worn to school if the school had no uniform. No, uniforms do not save parents money. Nor do they create equality. Students will always find a way to distinguish themselves: a way of wearing the uniform that is the way, accessories that you must have to be accepted. There will always be the popular ones and the unpopular ones. There will always be bullies. Uniforms don’t, as is sometimes suggested, prevent children from being able to tell whose parents have less money. The tendency of teenagers to form cliques, and to judge and pick on others, comes from their own insecurities, their fragile sense of self, and from what they learn from adults. (If you want to see the latter point in action, take a look at the comments from many adults on the articles about the girl with the leopard print hair. You’ll see where children learn judgemental behaviour.) Not only do uniforms not prevent students from bullying others, it could even be argued that uniforms, by telling children it is important to be the same, actively encourage the idea of intolerance towards those who are different.
Oh, and I suppose creation of a school identity should be briefly mentioned, too. It can, of course, be said that uniforms do achieve this aim (whether this needs to be an aim is perhaps more questionable, and that it can in any case be achieved without the need for a full uniform is indisputable). However, identifying the school certainly provides no justification for restricting students’ hairstyles, piercings, shoes or tightness of trousers (all the areas of appearance forming the usual subject matter of the disputed cases, in fact).
So, school uniforms are not about money or equality. School uniform and appearance codes are about conformity. Some rules exist to keep children safe. Some to tackle bullying or other unacceptable behaviour. Some are about the structure of the school day. Others the standard and level of work required from students. These rules all serve some specific purpose relating to the educating of children. What purpose do uniforms and rules on appearance serve? How do they further the students’ education? They have no point beyond the promotion of conformity. A rule for a rule’s sake.
Such rules are, of course, effective for the purpose of psychological conditioning. This is why so many exist in the military. Rules about tradition, appearance, ceremony, ritual. They have no direct significance to the work carried out by the armed forces but, indirectly, they are relevant to the effective running of a military. They exist to ingrain obedience and order; to create a mindset of following rules for the sake of following rules, even when you don’t agree with them or can’t see the point. It is not hard to see why that is important within the military, where it is necessary that people follow orders without question simply because they are orders. It is also, of course, important to encourage those in the armed forces to identify as a group, not as an individual. Rules that exist to make everyone look and act the same help with this. If the armed forces did not have a mindset of compliance and conformity, there could be chaos and disorder in potentially disastrous circumstances. These types of rules thus play their part in a form of psychological conditioning that is necessary for an effective, organised military.
But schools are not the military. Is conformity necessary for effective education? Or is it actually damaging to education, hindering free thinking and independence? This brings us back to the point: the need for uniforms and appearance codes surely depends on what you want to achieve. If your main priority is to make as many children as possible conformist and obedient, seen and not heard, then, yes, uniform codes probably help. They serve to instil in children the idea that they must all be the same and they must follow rules, regardless of whether the rule has a point.
Is that really what we want for our children? There is an important distinction between school children and the armed forces. The armed forces are a self-selecting group; they are people who have chosen to submit to these rules and this type of psychological conditioning. Children do not choose to go into the school system. Whilst those in the military know that all these rules they live by are a consequence of something they chose for themselves, for a child who does not agree with these school rules, they are simply alienating. Something forced upon them for no real reason. Do we want to alienate children from the education system?
Further, those in the military have selected their path, have decided that a military career is what they want, and worth obeying the rules for. Children’s futures are not yet decided. Among our children are the potential leaders, inventors, researchers, teachers, artists. For those futures, is conformity something to aspire to? Conformity and group mentality may be important in some areas of life, but in others freedom and individuality are everything. Do we hinder potential in those areas if we crush children with rules and uniformity?
Yes, children need to learn rules. Rules are part of society. But there are numerous other rules in school for them to follow. Just going to school is itself a rule. The question is not whether they need to follow rules, but whether they need to follow rules that serve no other purpose beyond the following of the rule.
Finally, what are we afraid of in allowing children to be individual, unregimented? Again, this is not the military. It is not a risk of chaos in a combat zone. If a whole year 9 maths class has strangely coloured hair and non-regulation shoes, what do we think is likely to happen? Is Bob’s ability to do quadratic equations dependent upon the colour of Fred’s hair? (In fact, ironically, anyone who thinks it is probably didn’t grasp the difference between independent and mutually exclusive probabilities in their own maths studies, despite their regulation hairstyle.)
I believe there is one thing military strategy can certainly teach us here, and it isn’t the psychological conditioning of conformity, it’s this: pick your battles. Being individualistic and non-conformist does not indicate that a child does not have potential in education and beyond, possibly even quite the opposite. If we are willing to alienate or exclude a child from education over purple hair or tight trousers, I can’t help but feel we may be missing what is actually important.