One of my favorite stories in the news last week was the group of boys who wore dresses to protest the lack of shorts as an option in their school’s uniform code in summer.
Every week there seems to be another story about students rebelling against overly restrictive or insensitive uniform and / or appearance policies.
Whether students wear a uniform or mufti, or some kind of ‘multiform’, there are always going to be ructions around appropriate dress codes. Teenagers in particular are always going to test the boundaries. And school policies around the rest of children’s appearance, such as facial hair, religious paraphernalia, political pageantry, jewelry, hair styles, and like, are equally tricky.
What is interesting is how often these sorts of dress code issues make national and international news.
Why is that?
Could it be that reporters revel in young rebels taking on the system? And what is more representative of the system and ‘uniformity’ than traditional schools?
Or could it be that these skirmishes over uniform and appearance are a reflection of a deeper trend of individualism and of a growing mistrust of traditional institutions?
Do students think of these rules as an attack on their individuality and self-expression? Are kids using uniform issues to protest a system which they see as not acting in their best interests? (In the same way that Britons and Americans have used their votes as a means of expressing their mistrust in their political and economic systems?)
Perhaps it is too big a leap to associate uniform scrimmages with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Whatever the reason is, it’s interesting to me that so many schools that pay lip-service to nurturing independence and individuality and creativity and student-centered education still insist on strict and outdated uniform regulations.
In South Africa (and many other former colonies), this is particularly rife, with many of our students still traipsing around looking like little Eton clones – in the heart of the African continent.
There are good arguments both for and against wearing uniforms at school. But the mistake that the pro-uniformers often make is to insist that they somehow magically ‘encourage respect’ (presumably for the school, or their teachers, or even themselves) or that they somehow foster ‘school spirit’. Neither of these is true.
You’ll hear the same thing that is said about uniforms said about school ‘traditions’: They are one of those things that you simply don’t question, “Because we’ve always done it this way”, or “Because it’s an integral part of our identity.”
Until a few brave young souls decide to rebel against this uniformity and obedience to outdated traditions, and to insist that schools respect them as much as they are told to respect school.
I don’t think there is an easy answer to the problem of dress and appearance codes at schools. Nor do I think that the answer is necessarily to do away with uniforms altogether. Learning to dress appropriately for different contexts is as important a skill as understanding how to use appropriate tone in different contexts.
I do think the uniform issue is an interesting battle-ground between the traditionalists and progressives. Or between what schools say they want for their students and what they actually want.
It would be intriguing to see if a few of the boys who protested by wearing skirts actually ended up preferring them, and if the girls at the school began protesting having to wear girls’ skirts by wearing boys’ shorts. Gender bias in uniform and appearance regulations has to be an issue which is going to be increasingly questioned in the coming years. Already, some forward-looking schools are accommodating transgender students by allowing them to select the uniform they feel most comfortable in.
But why stop there?
What will happen, I wonder, when students start turning their minds to canned curricula and one-size-fits-all teaching styles?
Uniforms encourage uniformity. In an age of individuality and progressive thinking, they are surely going to come under increasing attack. Thinking critically about school traditions, and taking collective action against repressive, outmoded ways of doing things has to be a good thing. It’s what we say we want from our students more generally when we talk about independent thinking, tolerance, and social justice.
Perhaps the answer is for schools use uniform debates as a way to engage and negotiate with students in a calm and respectful manner, which models how the bigger issues in society should be handled.