Should a school uniform be compulsory? - opinion

There has been extensive research into the pros and cons of school uniforms. The most persuasive argument against, as far as I’m concerned, is that children should be free to express themselves.

 TWO YOUNG Spanish girls walk hand in hand to school.  (photo credit: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)
TWO YOUNG Spanish girls walk hand in hand to school.
(photo credit: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

Ah, the new school year. My Facebook feed has been flooded with the obligatory “back to school” photos. But the difference between those posted by friends in Israel and others from Blighty is marked.

Most schoolkids in Israel wear jeans or shorts and a T-shirt bearing the school’s logo, whereas their British counterparts proudly show off their brand spanking new school uniforms that are generally mandatory in the old country.

The origins of the modern school uniform can be traced back to Christ’s Hospital boarding school founded in 16th-century England. Children who attend this school today still wear its historic, unique and world famous uniform, which is provided free to all pupils. Sadly, however, this is not the norm as most school uniforms cost money.

I attended an all-girls’ school in Manchester, from the ages of seven to 18, where a uniform was compulsory. We had separate winter and summer uniforms; blazers, ties, summer dresses, indoor and outdoor shoes and so on; separate sportswear, comprising gym skirts, large navy knickers and Aertex shirts also had to be purchased for those dreaded PE classes. The costs were eye-watering. Second-hand uniform sales were available, although I suspect many didn’t avail themselves of this facility out of embarrassment or fear of what their girls might say.

As the new school year approached, huge swaths of time and money were spent trying on various items of school uniform, often purchased on the larger side to ensure they lasted for at least a couple of years.

 Celebrations for the start of the new school year at Gabrieli Carmel School in Tel Aviv, September 1, 2022 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Celebrations for the start of the new school year at Gabrieli Carmel School in Tel Aviv, September 1, 2022 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Such were the restrictions placed on us, rolling up our skirts to reveal our knobbly knees and wearing our ties back to front, was all we could do to “personalize” our uniforms.

Hair and makeup were two areas where we could be slightly more adventurous. Looking back, this probably wasn’t such a good idea as I grew up in the cruel 80s when it was a choice between “big” hair à la Jennifer Beale in Flashdance, or the hideous goth look sported by members of The Cure. Those of us who plumbed for the former usually finished off the look with bright blue eyeliner and matching mascara, teamed with pearly pink lipstick; those who favored the latter were hardly recognizable under the thick layers of white face powder and swathes of black eyeliner.

“Own clothes day,” the one day a year in the school calendar during which we were free to “rock” our true selves, was a highlight. Outfits were planned weeks in advance. Leg warmers, shoulder pads and big earrings were the order of the day for my crew as we all piled into school marveling at each other’s fabulous get ups. 

When the time came for my own kids to start school in Manchester, again uniform was compulsory, although the rules were somewhat laxer. Happily, supermarket school items were more readily available by this time, making the whole exercise much easier, not to mention cheaper. Multi-packs of school shirts, jumpers and trousers were simply bunged into the trolley along with the weekly shop. 

What are school uniforms like in Israel?

Things became even easier in that department when we made aliyah. Save for a T-shirt/sweatshirt embossed with the school logo, kids here are free to wear whatever they like, within reason; shorts (for girls), ripped jeans, crop tops and a few other items are not allowed in my own kids’ school, for example. 

Some would argue that Israeli schoolchildren benefit from not having to wear starchy blazers, stiff collared shirts and ties, whereas others believe that school uniform improves behavior, fosters better relations all round and promotes the overall success of students.

The pros and cons of school uniforms

Extensive research into the pros and cons of school uniforms has long been the source of much lively discussion. The main argument in favor centers around the fact that a school uniform keeps students focused on their education, not their clothes, resulting in better behavior and better grades all round

David L. Brunsma, a sociologist at Virginia Tech, found this not to be the case. In a study, he analyzed a national sample of 10th graders, concluding that wearers of school uniforms were no more likely to attend school on a regular basis or behave better than those of their peers who wore their own clothes to school. Wearing school uniforms does not improve academic performance, he concluded.

But a school uniform also creates a level playing field among students, reducing peer pressure and bullying, according to others. Tony Volk, an associate professor at Brock University, found that this simply was not the case either. “Overall, there is no evidence in bullying literature that supports a reduction in violence due to school uniforms,” he writes.

“Overall, there is no evidence in bullying literature that supports a reduction in violence due to school uniforms.”

Tony Volk

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for scrapping school uniforms altogether is the fact that it restricts students’ freedom of expression. Indeed, for me , this was the most frustrating thing about having to wear it.

The School Inspectorate, a government agency in Sweden, agrees. They have ditched school uniforms altogether. The agency sees them as a human rights violation: “Dress and appearance should be considered an individual expression, decided by the students themselves,” they said.

Whatever your view on this subject, it is impossible to escape the fact that, in modern day society, it is not just the clothes schoolchildren wear that matter. Phones, watches, earphones and other status symbols, which most children from the age of 10 carry, can be just as divisive. Those who cannot afford the latest gadgets may feel embarrassed or be subjected to bullying by their more affluent peers, such is the importance placed on these items.

The most persuasive argument against, as far as I’m concerned, is that children should be free to express themselves. 

Former Brit Simon Joseph Wrigley was determined to do this, even though a uniform was compulsory in his school. “Personally I hated it, managed to get expelled for bending the rules, apparently in 1978; 6-button high-waisted baggy black trousers, white cheesecloth shirt, 8-inch platform shoes, spiked Ziggy Stardust bright orange hair, chandelier earring and half a bottle of patchouli oil on my denim jacket wasn’t acceptable,” he recalls balefully.

Some people just aren’t uniform types.

The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.