Monday, 18 April 2016

Uniform or Uniformity

Throughout my 14 years at school, I was always told that uniform was important. At primary school this didn't bother me in the slightest - probably because I was far too busy running around the playground pretending to be a witch, or playing with my Tamagotchi. But when I got to secondary school, it was full of rules and regulations, not only dictating what we should wear, but how we should wear it.

Now, I'm not saying that uniform is always a bad thing; I mean it solves the daily struggle of choosing what to wear, which at 7 in the morning, is a surprisingly hard decision. And there is a genuine point behind the idea of equality, in regards to gender or even wealth - the last thing you want is to feel intimidated by someone parading round in a fur jacket. Yet what you have to ask is, who does it benefit? It's all great saying 'tuck your shirt in', or 'roll your skirt down', but it's no good if they don't tell us why.

There was always resistance against the idea of uniform at my secondary school. Whenever a student piped up and asked the teacher why it mattered whether they wore a particular colour of hairband (yes this really happened), the only answer they got was that it supposedly created less distraction to themselves and others, which in turn would help their learning. Even more shockingly, another common excuse was that it could encourage people to dress in a more sexual way - an argument that would seem even more surprising coming from an all girls school. It doesn't take a genius to tell this is a load of rubbish. And how do I know, may you ask? One word: university.

If I can go to a lecture and not get distracted by the vibrant colours of my clothing, why is school so different? The answer is simple: it isn't. Uniform has very little benefit from a student point of view (I should know, I've worn a green jumper daily for 12 out of 18 years of my life). It is just another way for the school to try and maintain control over their students. This can be good in moderation, as it can encourage people to stay in line, but I know that in a lot of cases, this prospect has been taken to extremes.

My school was a prime example. When I got to sixth form, we were told that we had to wear suits instead of a uniform. This will already seem strange to a lot of people, as in other areas, schools have no problem with students wearing their own clothes. Some would say I went to a posh school, but this is another part of the debate - would they still think that if we wore our own clothes? It is safe to say that in my secondary school, uniform was manipulated as a device to uphold the reputation of the school. By wearing suits we were presented as respectable members of society who took their education seriously, and this is no bad thing. But when the rules are as ridiculous as only being allowed to wear plain/spotted/striped tops, and not being allowed to take your jacket off when walking around the school unless it was above a certain temperature, it becomes nothing but oppressive. How does being sent home for wearing a patterned jumper help your education?

One of the things I love most about university, is that people have the freedom to be whoever they want, however they want. A large part of this involves appearance. I have seen people with hair of a variety of shades, people with tattoos and piercings - all of which would not have been accepted at my secondary school. To feel comfortable in yourself and who you are is what will encourage you to learn, and to expand your horizons, to feel confident that you can achieve all you want. To stuff somebody into a uniform is in some ways a form of repression, forcing them to cohere to a stereotype that they may not want to part of. This could be particularly hard for someone who may be struggling with their identity, mentally and physically. They are being told they have to be something and be someone, rather than being given the freedom they need to decide for themselves. Coming from an all girls school, I was surprised at how much people changed once they were free from this ideological structure.

You might think that I'm making a big deal out of something so trivial, and that all of these issues go so much further than uniform. But little things can make a huge difference. I take so much joy in seeing how happy everyone is at university, knowing that they can be themselves in terms of appearance without people judging them. Back home, though uniform was an equaliser within a school, this still didn't prevent competition between various establishments, and I know that other students who wore their own clothes thought we were more than a little pretentious, strutting around in our suits. In reality, we were absolutely no different from them; our appearance was used merely to dictate the status of the school, not who we really were.

So what am I really trying to say? Honestly, I'm not really sure what the ideal outcome would be. The complete abolishment of uniform would mean that all schools would lose their social distinction (I know that this would be unthinkable at my school). However, is this really a bad thing? The core of all this is education, wherever you get it and how you get it. What you wear certainly does not improve this, in fact in many cases it does the opposite, with people often trying to rebel against these constraints. People will learn because they want to learn, whether or not they are wearing bright pink hotpants.

Ultimately it comes down to the argument I'm sure we've all heard a thousand times, which people continue to ignore.
It doesn't matter what is on the outisde, it is what's on the inside that counts. And now institutions such as schools need to prove that they have faith in who their students really are.

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