Fitted up?

School uniforms can help to improve pupils’ behaviour, education
minister Ivan Lewis declared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last
October. Among successful schools, a common characteristic was a
“strong sense of ethos”, he added, and “uniform undoubtedly
contributes to promoting both self-respect and respect for the

Can we assume that the minister based his unequivocal statements on
sound evidence? Sadly, we cannot.

Lewis’s pronouncement might have passed me by except that, at
around the same time, the head teacher of the inner London
comprehensive at which I am a parent-governor, and which has never
had a uniform, made similar claims when seeking parental support
for his proposal to introduce one.

There is no doubt that many parents are concerned about how their
teenagers dress, and that sexual expression among teenage girls and
“gangsta”-style among boys raise challenging issues. With schools
under intense pressure to improve results, who can blame teachers
for trying just about anything to improve behaviour and the
learning environment?

But if we are serious about training young people to become good
citizens, shouldn’t we teach them, by example, that decisions we
make about them are based on sound evidence as well as

There is no problem with Lewis’s claim that uniforms “can” help to
improve behaviour or that a “strong sense of ethos” is a consistent
characteristic of successful schools. But to leap from those
propositions to claims about what uniforms “undoubtedly” achieve is

Other EU countries that do much better than we do at secondary
education manage without uniforms, but some US inner-city schools
introduced them during the 1990s, for reasons similar to those
cited by Lewis. Having tracked the results over several years,
research1 concluded:

“The authors [of the analysis] were forced to reject the ideas that
uniforms improved attendance rates, decreased behavioural problems,
decreased drug use, or improved academic achievement. The authors
did find that pro-school attitudes from students and their peers
and good academic preparedness did predict the desired behaviour.
They saw that wearing uniforms did not lead to improvements in
pro-school attitudes or increased academic preparation.”

A more recent study2 actually found a negative link
between uniforms and students’ self-perception, and that uniforms
did not affect identification with gangs.

Apart from anecdotal evidence attributed to head teachers who have
turned around “failing” schools, what ministers do cite is a survey
reported by education secretary Charles Clarke in May last year
showing that most parents believed that uniforms work. The poll
found that 83 per cent of parents interviewed were in favour of
pupils wearing school uniforms with nearly 70 per cent saying they
thought uniforms would improve school discipline and improve school

The views of parents are important, but they do not justify
Clarke’s assertion at the time that uniforms “clearly have a marked
effect on improving behaviour and standards in our schools”.

Teaching our children (and ourselves) about the important
distinctions between belief and evidence is surely one of the most
important pedagogical steps we can take. And the issue of how
teenagers dress could stimulate rich exploration of civic rights
and responsibilities, and of the role of media and corporate
advertising in shaping taste and consumption.

Ministers could also familiarise schools and their students with
the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article
12 requires governments to “assure to the child who is capable of
forming his or her own views the right to express those views
freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child
being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of
the child.”

The convention’s Article 13 asserts the child’s “right to freedom
of expression”, subject to “certain restrictions”. Those do not
include the unfounded beliefs of parents, head teachers or

Journal of Educational
(Vol 92, No 1, p53),

Education and Urban Society, (Vol 35, No 4,
August 2003, p399)

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.