Uniform reactions

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

13 April 2010

News reports tell us that teachers at an Auckland secondary school are “upset” at getting a bit of a hurry up from their principal about their dress.

It has long been the case that if you came across someone in a school wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie you knew that it was the man who had come to fix the photocopier. Teachers have become increasingly informal and relaxed about their dress over the past twenty years and there seems little explanation for it other than a general relaxation of what some people would call standards in this area.

But does it matter? Well apparently so when you consider that at the same timer there has been little relaxation of the dress standards required of students other than some flexibility within colour regimes. And it is the bane of teachers’ lives.

Not everywhere of course. In the private rich schools, especially the girls schools where A List fashion designers have put the little ladies into skirts of a length that no-one has worn since Victorian times, standards are maintained, socks drawn up to full length, shirts tucked in, well at least when you are close the school. Less so by the time the bus reaches the outskirts.

So powerful is the love of school uniforms in the community that once parents got their hands on schools in 1989 they systematically introduced school uniforms for primary school students. This has at least introduced some humour into the school yard as little ones struggle to fill out uniforms bought for them to “grow into.” But the little ones don’t mind, they can’t see out of sunhats with brims so wide that children daily add to their shortage of Vitiman D.

But generate a discussion about school uniforms and the community seems at one – they are a good thing, they create and maintain equality, they are cost effective and so it goes on. All of these arguments are, of course, rubbish. School uniforms do nothing for equality and they are far from cheap. You see, we like to have our young ones in the controlling dress of the uniform – like soldiers, and waiters, and nurses, and airline pilots, and Super 14 teams. In none of these instances does a uniform increase the capabilities of those wearing them.

And the research seems to support this. Hattie, in Visible Learning, reports a study by Brunsma (2004) that finds that uniform policies and dress codes had no discernable effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a “significant negative effect” in high school. Worse than this, Brunsma went on to assert that uniform initiatives had “no effect on pro-school or pro-peer attitudes, on attendance, on self-esteem, locus of control, coping skills,, level of drug use, or behaviour incidents.” Oh dear! Why do we bother?

Well, I guess we bother because we like neatness, and tidiness and the cleanliness that is next to godliness. It seems like a sound thing. But there are ways of achieving this other than through school uniforms. I told you last week that I had been up to BYU Hawai’i for a couple of days and was greatly interested in a brochure aimed at students called “Dress and Grooming Standards.” This set out the guidelines for dress for men, women, athletics and leisure. This explained the neatness, tidiness and cleanliness of the students without exception.

Men were encouraged to be well groomed and to wear “slacks, jeans, dress shorts, sweaters, and port or dress shirts with sleeves”. Footwear should be work at all times in public places and men must keep their shirts on! For women the theme seemed to be modesty with loose fitting blouses, shirts and sweaters, trousers that came up to the waist and hems that went down to the knee.  There were clear statements about inappropriate dress and the whole deal is wrapped up in an outline of The Honour Code that reflects the beliefs and principles of the college.

Now, the point is this. I saw no young people who seemed to be oppressed, none who looked foolish or uncomfortable because of their dress. They looked like a pretty regular groups of young people who had energy, talent, wonderful social skills and liveliness – any school in New Zealand would have been proud to have them as their students.

But each day they dressed themselves willingly within the guidelines. Uniformity of dress was not seen as a condition of conformity of values or behaviours.

So it seemed to me that it was pretty silly, if the reports were true, for some teachers to rail against a simple request to set a standard. If they don’t do it then who does? Sam Snot the Rapper? Bandana Bill the local gang lout?

When I started teaching, the male teachers were ushered into the Men’s’ Marking Room to be told with great solemnity that from next Monday men could wear shorts for the oncoming summer. The process was reversed at the end of the summer – back into the longs! I don’t think we saw this as an erosion of our human rights.

But I must say that I think the requirement that male teachers wear ties if it was successful might just about achieve this success right at the point when males outside of school staffroom were dispensing with them in both formal and informal settings. Oh well, education can’t get it right all the time otherwise the media would be left high and dry for its daily news.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the nice post…

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