Unicorns or uniforms?

School Shirt
Bonus points if you recognise the school tie!

We are delighted that a range of professionals and experts have agreed to contribute some guest posts for us.  Today Dr Kate Smith, a senior lecturer in Early Childhood, is sharing some insights into the issue of school uniforms – a ‘hot topic’ for those of us in the UK context. 

Like many young children in England, my niece started school this month. The night before her first day she and her Dad had one of those very funny encounters that often occur with young children and it went like this…

Dad ‘Is there anything we need to get ready for school tomorrow’

Niece ‘Yes, we need to lay my unicorn out’ 

We know what she means right? Her choice of the word unicorn is magical and amusing, so well worth sharing. However, this little incident also set me off on a line of enquiry. I was intrigued by what she really meant because actually my niece does not have a school uniform to lay out.  The children at her new school do not wear a uniform. The ‘uniform’ she was referring to was her own choice of clothing. What was striking to me was that this is so unusual. Children who attend state primary schools in England are generally expected to arrive in the same school uniform as their peers. So, why is it normal for young children to wear uniform to school, and odd when they don’t? Thinking a bit more deeply about this – what does uniform signify to parents, teachers and children? And does it really matter what children wear to school?

Most adults have vivid memories of their own school uniform. In my case it is of struggling to iron all of the pleats on my school skirt and having to exist for a significant part of my teenage years in polyester navy. Uniform is woven into childhood experience; it is linked to rules and punishment, the feeling of being part of a system, as well as rebellion against the system itself. My middle daughter has just begun sixth form, and guess what the best thing about it is from her perspective? Yes, you guessed it, not having a uniform to wear. She has ditched the polyester and is free to express herself, or at least not be judged by teachers about her skirt length. Uniform is intrinsically linked to being a school child, with all of the hierarchies and power relations that it brings.

At one school I worked at all the children wore proper shirts and ties. After every P.E. lesson I had a line of reception and year one children waiting for me to do up their ties. Alongside tying shoe laces, precious teaching and learning time was wasted on making sure that the children were uniformed correctly.  I longed for sweatshirts and velcro and needless to say the ties were often shoved into trays or book bags so we could get on with learning. Non-school uniform days and school trips were fascinating as I got to know the class differently; not as a group of pupils with shared attire, but as individual children with unique outfit choices.

Childhood clothing signifies and that signification creates a way of ‘knowing’ children. School uniform bestows a meaning on children and provides a narrative about childhood. Saussure wrote that to understand our social existence, we need to understand the signs of social life, both the ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes (uniform); and the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents (the meanings we give to uniform). To understand children’s social existence as uniform wearers, we need to explore what uniform might mean.

So, what does uniform mean to schools? There is often an assumption within education of a positive association between wearing uniform and good behaviour. Uniform is understood to enhance a pride in the school and oneself, which is then linked to working hard, achieving goals and basically abiding by the rules. Uniform therefore signifies what a successful pupil should be, so it makes sense that wearing uniform creates successful children.

The language used to describe school uniform is also interesting in what it signifies. ‘Smart’ and ‘business like’ are used regularly in school uniform policies, with sixth forms expecting students to be dressed ‘for the office’, regardless of the subjects they are studying. The school child is ‘imagined’ in relation to a corporate workplace, one which is hardly recognisable in terms of what the school curriculum offers, and is very likely to be non-existent for this generation’s future.

A zero tolerance school uniform policy has been particularly pushed by schools that require improvement. There have been numerous cases recently in the news about children being sent home from school and denied learning due to school uniform enforcement. These extreme actions highlight the significance of school uniform within a school improvement narrative, but what evidence exists to prove that a focus on uniform leads to better results?

The fact is that there is very limited evidence, if any at all, to back up these claims. Studies so far show that no causal relationship between behaviour and attainment can be identified. Children’s behaviour for learning and attainment is much more likely to be down to consistent behaviour policies and teaching and learning relationships rather than the style of skirts or the length of ties. In the cases picked up by the media the focus on uniform by the school has more significance in outlining to the children and parents the authority and status of the leadership team – a message of ‘toe the line or else’.

And what about parents, what significance do they assign to uniform? Mumsnet discussions demonstrate very mixed feelings towards uniform, with most messages posted referring unsurprisingly to cost. In my experience as a parent there is both a recognition of the ease of uniform (no need to buy anything fancy or choices to be had),  but also an underlying irritation –  in the last year I have had a long running battle with my son’s school about whether his shoes were acceptable or not. I am sure that this is a recognisable scenario for most parents of school-aged children.

Parents do invest into the meaning of what children wear to school and that extends to other people’s children too. In the last week a Christian couple have used school uniform to signify their disagreement with their child’s school about the inclusion of another classmate’s choice to wear both the boys and the girls’ uniform. They are uncomfortable with the mixed messages the child’s transgender identity is sending their own child, arguing that a boy wearing a dress is confusing for their child. However, using uniform as a signifier to argue against transgender rights is misleading. The parents argue that they are unhappy with the flexibility of dress codes that this child has been allowed, but it is clearly the child’s exploration of gender (the signification of uniform for the child), not the dress (the signifier), that they are unhappy with.

Finally, and most importantly what meanings do children give to uniform? This summer saw a recent spate of children rebelling against wearing uniform in very hot weather and being excluded from lessons. Denying children their right to education because they are overheating in blazers seems downright ludicrous and inhuman. However, on a more positive note, children have also been demonstrating the limitations of school uniform rules and disrupting its signification.  Teenage boys were told that they couldn’t wear shorts  as these were not part of the school uniform, and turned up to school the next day in skirts which were part of the school uniform. The headteacher has since reviewed the uniform rules on shorts. Hats off to the boys for recognising that uniform can be reclaimed to signify social change, and also for having a bit of fun with the rules too.

There is a real scarcity of research into children’s perspectives of school uniform, but in 2012 BBC newsround did a survey of children’s views. Like parents there was a mixed response. Some children vehemently wanted uniform to be scrapped, but some also recognised the practicalities of having a uniform, how it provides equality, and avoids peer pressure to wear certain brands of clothes. Interestingly, the children in favour of uniform gave no indication that this was because they want to be ‘smart’ or ‘business like’. Perhaps if we asked children to contribute to decision making in schools then a different language around uniform might emerge, one which focuses more on fairness and practicality.

If the ‘image’ of the school child is signified within uniform policy, it is important to question the form that signification takes. Knowing that signs are never arbitrary all school leaders should be asking whether their policies recognise children as having their own identities, decision-making abilities and interests, and if not, what image of the child is being re-enforced instead? Considering how we want our children to look, feel, and be, when they are in school is important. It signifies to everyone in the school community the care we take in making sure that the children are comfortable and able to learn.

As a last thought we could learn a lot about what school clothes could signify if we took into account my niece’s actual choice of ‘uniform’. What she laid out for the big day was a pair of jeans, some trainers and a long sleeved top with a big ‘Yay!’ written on it. What a great outfit to choose for a first day at school. What a clear message she is sending everyone – ‘I am ready for new adventures in learning – Yay!’ I suspect that she didn’t choose the wrong word after all, that ‘unicorn’ is indeed an accurate description of her school outfit. Rather than a ‘uniform’ made of uncomfortable polyester, representing unquestioned conformity and corporate identity, she chose to wear a ‘unicorn’  signifying an exciting, magical experience full of discovery and adventure. That is what she expects from school, so let’s make sure that her experience when she is there reflects her choice of clothing. And if anyone wants to run the school ‘unicorn’ shop with me, just get in touch!

Kate Smith
Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood
@ katesmithok

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