On school uniform, and uniform schools

Image courtesy of Indiewench, Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Indiewench, Creative Commons.


One of the really obvious things about most schools in the UK is that all of the children wear the same outfit. A source of great chagrin to most of the pupils who use and abuse it, its role is to level the playing field, prevent distraction, discourage bullying, deter truancy, promote a good work ethic, and so on. Or possibly to help the teachers spot which ones are the pupils, and help all the pupils blend together into one amorphous blob.

When I was growing up in the ‘90s I remember a few school French exchanges, where I observed that plenty of schools in France did not insist on uniform. However the children were so affected by the peer pressure endemic in a such a large institution, that they all voluntarily opted to wear a uniform anyway – blue denim. Literally entire playgrounds full of French youths clad head to toe in blue denim, like some kind of bizarre advert for Levi jeans.

On the one hand I can empathise. It can be a bit disconcerting when one of the children in our homeschool rocks up semi-naked. Or another arrives dressed as an 18th century brigand of the high seas. And I can well imagine that being faced with 30 or more Elsas and Spidermen day in, day out, would depress the spirits somewhat.

That said, school uniforms have a surprising tenacity. They are so expensive as to be debt-inducing, but so badly made – almost deliberately it would seem –as to fade and fray within hours. Even the kids find it difficult to make them attractive.  The girls turn over a skirt’s waistband a couple of hundred times, the boys loosen off lose their ties. It’s shabby, not chic. Thus they are the bain of the teachers who must enforce them, and the parents who must afford them.

School uniforms are really a minor concern, but they are symptomatic of a greater one. Whether you like it or not (and plenty of people do like it) school is a great tool of the system for institutionalising children, and one of the key methods for achieving this is their uniformity.  This is by far the most distinctive thing about schools of all varieties, in the British context at least. State-funded schools are joining with parents in training up their children in far more than just academic basics.  And whilst the parents’ philosophy or politics might be traditional, faith-based, anti-establishment, Trotskyist, back-to-nature-ist, or just out-and-out-rebellious, you can be sure the schools’ will remain uniformly politically correct (which, NB, is not a fixed point).

The fact is that state schools are largely state-controlled and independent schools are bastions of the bourgeois establishment.  It is true that many who home-educate their children also tend to prefer an “alternative” lifestyle, favour radical left-wing politics, owned a VW camper at one point, or at the very least grow their own vegetables.  Many people, however, have realised that they do not want their children’s responses to life’s challenges to be shaped by school to be identical to everyone else’s, like a huge pack of Pavlov’s dogs.  (And this entirely unrelated to whether or not they keep chickens.) Instead they want their children to develop as true individuals who know themselves and participate in society as free agents, rather than as cogs in a machine.

I’m plagued by an overdeveloped capacity to question everything. I am the GP’s worst headache, reading a dozen medical journal articles just before attending the appointment.  It’s a testament to the primary school I attended (whose leaders clung furiously to the metaphorical treetops whilst the tidal wave that was the National Curriculum swept in) that this questioning approach was not snuffed out. So when I looked at school from a parent’s viewpoint I started asking questions, and their possible conclusions disturbed me.

Why must school start at 8.30am… is it because mum and dad need to get to work on time, or to drill them for future work-life punctuality? Why must the school day be 7 hours long, 5 days a week, 36 weeks a year… is it because due to class sizes and different learning needs the curriculum won’t be covered otherwise? Why must the children be grouped in year-groups… is it the simplest way to administrate over a thousand children? Why must there be 30+ children in a class…is it because more teachers will cost too much, even though they’re not paid enough anyway? Why must the teachers (in state schools) undergo a uniform state-approved course of training…is it to ensure that uniformity is national?

These are just a few of the reasons why I can’t, in good faith, sign a Home-School Agreement.

How’s your history of schools?  Did you know, schooling is a relatively modern affair.  In the UK it was a great hotchpotch until the 20th century, with almost all schools founded and run by the established Church.  Education has only been compulsory for the last 140 years, over which period its uniformity has been steadily developed.  This timeline demonstrates the dearth of any schooling until the industrial revolution (with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge whose roots are medieval).  Our present day school system is in some ways little changed from its 19th century foundations.  For example, under the 1876 Elementary Education Act, School Boards were authorised to establish Day Industrial Schools,

“in which industrial training, elementary education, and one or more meals a day, but not lodging, are provided for the children” for their “proper training and control”.

Sound familiar?  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, springs to mind.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Trends in education – such as whether or not to teach phonics – have come and gone, and come again.  Control and funding of schools has also been passed from pillar to post.  And curriculum has been enforced and meddled with. One consistency, though, is that from the turn of the 20th century to the present day, the British government continued – and still continues – to expand the reach and scope of schooling, with ever-increasing uniformity, and with no end in sight.


  1. Geraldine Fowler's Gravatar Geraldine Fowler
    March 23, 2015    

    So glad our experience of school is not like the one you describe! there are state funded schools that have no uniform, gradually increasing attendance requirements, lunches cooked by nuitritionists, and teachers that induce enthusiasm for life and learning whilst caring for each as an individual. I genuinely thank God for the teachers and community in my boys lives.

    • March 23, 2015    

      Geraldine, thank you for your lovely comment. I too am glad that there are such schools, and that you are blessed to have one to send your boys to. Sadly, this is not the norm for most children, particularly once they reach 11.

  2. Vince O'Farrell's Gravatar Vince O'Farrell
    March 23, 2015    

    While I agree in general with everything you say, a key point you don’t mention is the importance of parents’ appreciating that they continue to have responsibility for their children’s education even if they have sent them to a conventional school. Schools vary widely in their abilities and performance as you know when your primary and secondary school experiences are compared. The parents’ job is easier when the school performs better, and the school teachers’ job is more difficult as school and class sizes increase.

    Many parents believe that sending their children to school means they have handed over responsibility for their children’s education to the school (usually willingly and with great relief!) but that is just abdication in my view. All they have done is subcontract the work of teaching their children during the core daytime hours to others (and I accept the parents have little control over who does the work, and how well it is done).

    Some parents have the skills and time to do the teaching work themselves but most do not and this is the main raison d’etre for conventional schools in a society which seeks to raise its overall level of education.

    In my experience, because home-schoolers are a self-selecting set and do not need to demonstrate the appropriate skills and abilities for the work, the results are distinctly mixed. Also, social skills, particularly in terms of peer relationships, is one area where conventional schools seem to provide opportunities for better results, and is the area which many home-schoolers appear to struggle to match conventional schools.

    So, both modes of education have their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the optimum results would come from a mixture of the two modes, though I accept our current school system makes that difficult.

    • March 23, 2015    

      Thanks for the (long) comment! You are absolutely right about parental involvement – an issue I will touch on in a future article. I have to disagree with you on the subject of peer relationships; I believe this is influenced far more by a child’s personality and self-esteem/confidence. What you see in home educated children is a representation of a child adjusted normally – through relationships with children (and adults) of all ages. Often, there is a higher than average proportion of HE’d kids who have been pulled out of school due to bullying, so they might not come across as confidently. The whole sbject of “socialisation” is one I hope to address soon too. 🙂

  3. April 1, 2015    

    Interesting-yes, school does tend to conformity especially with the National Curriculum and a tendency to teach to a secular humanist worldview. We had our older children in school and home educate the younger ones. One of the younger children was concerned about lack of school uniform so for a few months wore a cheap supermarket uniform. Having done this for a while, the attraction of uniform has now disappeared!

    • April 1, 2015    

      It’s understandable your younger one wanted to dress like their older siblings! The uniform is, to me, a symptom of a deeper problem – rather than a problem in itself. Though plenty of parents have had enough of it, I think. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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