Uniformity at school

by Craig Nudelman

The other morning, I woke up and I found a little girl in a school uniform.

Her usual long and wild hair was in a neat braid, her colourful clothes replaced by a white t-shirt and a blue and white tartan skirt, and in the place of here her tie-dye slip slops were white socks and black school shoes. I had a Grade 1 in my room.

It wasn’t a shock, to be honest. I knew Jessica was going to go to her first day of ‘big school’ that Tuesday morning. However, there was a niggling thought in the back of my mind that my little creative, wild (in a positive sense), outgoing, and fun little girl was going to be sucked into ‘the system’. Why did her uniform invoke that feeling in me? Was it my own school career coming back to taunt me? Or is she is now going to lose something? Something special — something which defines my little Jessie?

In South Africa, school uniforms (or sometimes a multiform — where older learners can choose a style but still fit into the norm) are quintessential to schooling. This has been the norm since formal education began, based on our former ties to British colonialism. But in other countries that do not have a compulsory uniform system, more and more schools are beginning to adopt a dress-code. The best example is the United States, where 20% of school-goers are now required to wear uniforms. There are multiple reasons that are provided (mostly by school websites) about why a uniform is important.

One is that they break down class barriers between students. This is definitely a positive and one which, I think, many of us have seen first-hand. Regardless of economic privilege, each student is required to wear the same clothes. Here’s an interesting fact about American schools: according to K12academics.com, 47% of low-income schools require uniforms, whereas only 6% of high economic status schools do. When there is a ‘civvies’ day at school, you can tell who can afford to buy the big brands and flaunt their wealth. But school uniforms are still expensive; blazers, shoes, belts, shirts, and pants/skirts, not to mention a summer and winter uniform, can cost up to R9000 in a middle-income school, according to Mark Potterton, the director of the Catholic Institute of Education. This must be addressed in a modern South African context, not one which was prescribed 145 years ago.

Another aspect cited as positive is that the wearing of uniforms result in increased student focus. Evidence for this is quite thin, but apparently students don’t have to notice or respond to what they or their peers are wearing and can concentrate on their studies. I have to disagree with this. Wearing a blazer and tie in stifling heat, or not having a thicker jersey when it’s cold, does not allow for a child to focus on their studies. In fact, it hampers it. Also, if a student is not disciplined enough to wear their uniform correctly (untucked shirt, a neon pink hair-band, or G-d forbid a patterned sock) a teacher will ‘have’ to discipline them. This doesn’t really lead to academic focus. Neither does this lead to the other advantages of uniforms: promotion of school spirit; discipline in general; or a sense of belonging or community.

One interesting aspect which can be both an advantage and disadvantage in our society today is one of safety. If there is a field trip, the teacher in charge can easily see the students, which allows all students to be accounted for (in most cases) as they won’t easily blend into the crowd. However, there can be two arguments against this from both a social media and Jewish perspective. If a student takes a picture of themselves in their school uniform and posts it onto Instagram, a sexual predator can see where the student goes to school and abduct the student (so make sure your child is aware of this!). In a Jewish context, there could be an antisemitic incident, although this is unlikely.

Despite these positives, there are cons to a school uniform which must be taken into consideration. The first, mentioned above, is that it is expensive. With limited suppliers (which is changing due to the Competition Tribunal stating that exclusive supply agreements for certain school uniforms must end), uniforms cannot be procured at a reasonable price. I have seen students whose blazers, shirts, jerseys, and shoes look ‘shoddy’. This may not be because they don’t care about the uniform itself, but just can’t afford what is needed.

Uniforms do not allow for a student’s self-expression. I know many reading this will argue that our new society is filled with nonsensical ideas about allowing children to express themselves when they actually need discipline to succeed in life. However, we must allow students to express their emotions, especially at such a difficult age. Yes, there should be a limit on what students should be able to wear, but really, what is the difference between having a pink scrunchy or two earrings in the greater scheme of things? This also leads to punishment which is undeserved. Self-expression is not a crime – it is a way of showing who you are in a system which can sometimes be so constricting and oppressive. And in some scenarios (think of the Sans Souci Girl’s High scenario where an African student was told she could not wear braids at school due to the hair policy) it could be considered unconstitutional and increase the marginalization of certain students.

Uniforms are everywhere in society. Whether you are a builder, businessman, teacher, actor, or yoga instructor, there are codes of conduct for how we dress and represent our company or profession. Nevertheless, let’s show some compassion for our little people who are still developing and need to express themselves. Maybe Jessie will wear a pink or purple hair band every now and then — just don’t tell the principal!

• Published in the PDF edition of the February 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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