The start of a new school year has been, predictably, accompanied by stories of pupils falling foul of new school uniform regulations.
As if to highlight the absurdity of rules, reports have featured cases where trousers have been deemed verboten due to being the ‘wrong shade’ of ‘charcoal. Several news items from across the nation tell stories of pupils turned away at the school gates or placed in isolation and the parental anger at the apparent unfair treatment of their child for what they perceive to be a minor infringement. Here is a small selection of news reports from the past week:
One common sense response is that these are the rules, the uniform requirements are provided in advance and so failing to adhere to them will result in some form of sanction. If we accept that school uniforms are natural and that a failure to comply is evidence of anti-social behaviour that needs to be addressed, then we can leave the argument, unexamined, there.
But, any social scientific understanding of any aspect of life starts with a requirement to make the familiar strange and ask some critical questions about what is going on here.
One of the issues raised surrounds the requirement to purchase branded uniform items from a designated supplier. School logos are embroidered on trousers and skirts and blazers have school badges pre-sewn on them. This means that parents cannot simply buy an item from a supermarket, they must buy a regulation issue item, often at a higher cost. In other words, the business of school uniform suppling takes on the appearance of a cartel. So, we could ask why is there a need for trousers and skirts to be branded? Schools do have a response to this and seek to justify their uniform policies. For example, Heaton Manor School in Newcastle states:
Heaton Manor School believes that uniform increases a sense of pride and belonging to our school. Uniform also helps to address social differences between children.
So, uniform is for the collective good, as well as contributing towards social justice, therefore the school is justified in sanctioning you if you do not adequately demonstrate a commitment, via clothing, to these ideals.
This is deeply problematic and one would hope any scholar of education would critically examine such a statement in an attempt to understand what schools do to our children.
Uniform is a way that schools might seek to create a group identity. We could revisit the founding perspectives in the sociology of education to understand why a group collective conscience might be a good idea, particularly as a means of maintaining discipline (Durkheim, 1973). We can see this reflected in schools’ claims that consistency is needed to achieve a sense of pride and to maintain standards. As Maguire et al (2010) observe, a tightly enforced uniform policy signifies to parents and the community that the school is maintaining order and that it takes discipline seriously. It is a means of managing risk. Having a uniform is a form of social control, but this might not necessarily be positive. Creating an ethos and a group identify can also deny individuality and, where society is based on inequality and conflict may be a means of maintaining and reproducing these inequalities. For example, we can go back to Thorstein Veblen:
The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real or ostensible (1899, p. 78).
Or, we can look to Foucault, (see the section Docile Bodies in Discipline and Punish) and consider how uniforms may be a way of controlling and surveilling the body (see also Meadmore and Symes, 1996).
What of the claim that uniforms help to “address social differences”? This is meant to appeal to our sense of social justice. Of course, we need a uniform so as not to expose those children from deprived backgrounds whose parents can’t afford the latest fashions. This is spurious. If, as a society, we were that bothered about social differences we would address those social differences rather than use uniforms to pretend they didn’t exist. But, to suggest that uniforms have the power to disguise social inequalities is to ignore how social class is embodied. Using a uniform in an attempt to ‘address social differences’, i.e. pretend they don’t exist might help us to deny the existence of the pernicious impact of social class inequality, but nevertheless social class remains a ‘zombie’ stalking schools (Reay, 2006).
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