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School uniform wars: time for a rights-based approach

Over recent months and years there has been a spate of headlines as children are put in isolation, served with exclusions or banned from play times due to their ‘inappropriate’ clothes, haircuts, jewellery, eyebrows or make-up.

Schools in parts of the UK seem to be upping the ante with strict uniform and appearance policies, with an aim to reduce variation in appearance, improve modesty and restrict self-expression. While some of the more extreme examples reported in the media have been in academy chains in England, there is definitely a ‘strictness’ trend emerging in Wales too.

Are there advantages to strict uniform policies?

But, what are the advantages of a strict uniform and appearance policies, and are there negatives to this increasing trend in schools?

There is little research evidence available that can conclusively prove that the wearing of school uniforms has a positive or negative effect on pupils’ behaviour or results. Research studies that do show a positive impact tend to concentrate on the wearing of uniform or not, rather than examining the impact of strict enforcement of specific rules.

Nonetheless, whilst many European countries get along just fine without uniforms, it’s an important part of our school culture in the UK and many argue that a standard uniform reduces the likelihood of bullying due to pupils with less income not being able to wear the same expensive labels as others.

However, many schools now not only expect a uniform, but also impose strict rules on coats, shoes, hair, and the shape and length of skirts and trousers.

I am very sceptical about some of these rules, which appear to have been brought in without regard to hard evidence of ‘what works’ and in some cases may breach children’s rights to education, socialisation, play, fair treatment and non-discrimination.

Children’s rights

My job is to stand up for children’s human rights and to speak up about the things that children tell me are important to them.  I visit scores of schools each year and meet thousands of children and young people. Uniform (alongside bullying, mental health, sex and relationships education and exam stress) is one of the top things I hear about. Earlier this year I published a report that reflected the impact of strict school uniform policies on children and their families that my team had listened to from across Wales.

10 tips

Here are my top tips for a rights-based approach to uniform policies.

  1. Do involve the whole school community in developing uniform and appearance policies: any rules will be more successful if you have a general agreement between staff, pupils and parents as to what is fair.
  2. Do think about the costs of uniforms. Is it necessary to have logos on every item? Why not just on the jumper or blazer, or have sew on badges? See our Check with Ceri resource
  3. Do make sure that teachers and other school staff also have to follow the same basic rules around modesty or amount of make-up – teenagers can scent hypocrisy a mile away
  4. Do make sure you have recycling of uniforms in a non-stigmatised way. Some children come from situations where it can be a real stretch to replace a lost blazer or gym kit, and the environmental impact of new clothing is huge. See our Revolve project.
  5. Do consider what a child might have gone through to get to school. If a child is living with traumatic experiences outside of school, then surely their first greeting should be a ‘how are you today?’ not a row about their trainers.
  6. Don’t use punishments that deprive children of their other rights, such as the right to play by preventing them having playtime or to education by excluding them for uniform lapses. Isolation can be a serious breach of rights too. Are there more positive ways to encourage pupils to conform with the rules?
  7. Don’t tell girls their short skirts or tight trousers are a distraction to the boys, or worse to male teachers. Stop and think what messages that gives. I hear about this regularly.
  8. Don’t squash every bit of individuality in pupils. Adolescence is a time for exploration of self. Will a streak of colour in the hair really lead to chaos in school?
  9. Don’t have gender specific rules, e.g. that only boys can wear trousers and only girls can wear skirts.
  10. Finally, do be accountable to pupils. Explain why rules are being brought in and how you’re going to evaluate their effectiveness.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government issued statutory guidance on school uniform and appearance policies to reflect some of these tips including unbranded clothing and non-gendered uniform rules.  This guidance was issued in July and I now urge all those responsible to tackle this issue in conjunction with pupils and their families.  I will be taking an active interest in how schools are addressing this issue and speaking to children to help get a real sense of whether there is change being made in this area.