School uniforms mean equality, not sameness

2017-09-03 06:02
Skinny pants uniform. Photo: Jacques Nelles/Citizen

Skinny pants uniform. Photo: Jacques Nelles/Citizen

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‘I just don’t like uniforms and the way they look,” said a Grade 8 pupil.

“When you wear a uniform, you can’t be yourself. You don’t have your own personality,” she told a local talk-radio station.

“They chase us away and refuse us access to learning because of our skinny pants,” said a seventh-grader.

“They are forcing us to dress the way they want, yet we also want to have a say on how we look,” he told the radio station.

Telling listeners that he was dressed in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt, the seventh-grader said he wanted to choose what he wore because uniforms were too restrictive.

As a parent of school-age children and an MEC, I have followed the recent discussion about school uniforms – prompted by pupils who boycotted classes and demanded to be allowed to wear skinny pants instead of the common grey cut on Fridays.

The latest debate was not the first and last. There have been many such debates before, and all of them ended the same way.

There has always been a common thread to this discussion. How do we find common ground? How do we give our kids a sense that they belong? Uniforms.

How do we prevent schools from turning into fashion shows? How do we stop the teasing when a child cannot keep up with the fashionistas?

Uniforms.

I understand that school dress codes and mandated school uniforms may seem like godsends to parents who are attempting to negotiate the treacherous shoals of adolescent culture and identity formation.

Few things in life are as clear as adolescents’ seemingly innate drive to assert their independent judgement of social affairs.

It is not uncommon for middle and high school youths to challenge various manifestations of authority and openly voice their opinions about the justice of the situations they encounter at home and at school.

Of course, few issues in these delicately negotiated years are likely to generate more heated interactions than dress styles, language use, personal adornments, grooming and peer-group behaviours.

I agree – and I know most South Africans agree – that freedom of speech gives people the right to express themselves in ways other than speech. This includes the right to wear what they want.

But should these rights be given to school children? And should these rights include the right for pupils to wear anything?

A sensible idea

Many public and private schools have had uniform and dress code policies – adopted by school governing bodies (SGBs), in consultation with parents – for years.

SGBs know that allowing parents to choose the colours and style for individual schools, within reasonable parameters, helps make those parents active participants in school affairs and builds school spirit among the students.

The truth is that most learners love uniforms. On the first day of class, uniform compliance is 100%. Students feel they belong, and they are eager to learn. You can see it in their smiles!

So, uniforms can be useful in schools.

They can help foster a sense of group belonging and school pride.

Uniforms build student self-esteem by eliminating the distraction of fashion competitiveness that is common in schools.

Eliminating clothing competitiveness saves parents money and aggravation.

Youngsters focus more on learning, which is the main reason for going to school.

Take away the designer tags and offbeat individual styles in kids’ school clothes, and what do you get?

More often than one may guess, the answer is higher test scores, fewer discipline problems – and happier parents.

With advantages like that, it is no surprise that SGBs and parents prefer school uniforms. It is clear that uniforms help eliminate distractions.

Parents embrace uniforms because they know what their child must wear to class, and they won’t be spending as much money on clothes.

Teachers embrace them because studies show that a uniform look reduces discipline problems and increases learning opportunities.

Parent-teacher organisations and SGBs also embrace them.

Since time immemorial, uniforms have been touted as a measure that reduces peer pressure, increases safety, improves grades and raises self-esteem.

Uniforms are a sensible idea and an effective way to help all children learn, setting high standards of behaviour and a calm classroom atmosphere.

In theory, we are preparing these kids to enter the workforce and seek careers. Uniforms provide a sense of camaraderie and a business-like attitude in class.

Kids do not go to school worried about what to wear or whether their clothes are cool. All they have to concentrate on is doing well in class. That should be the main focus of any school.

Indeed, uniforms eliminate the “fashion show” in school and are much cheaper than fashionable clothes.

We know that some schools in gang-ravaged communities have made school uniforms an important part of an overall programme to improve school safety and discipline.

After all, there have been instances of students having resorted to violence and theft simply to obtain designer clothes and sneakers.

In some areas, we have heard how clothing items worn at school, and bearing special colours or insignias, are used to identify gang membership or instil fear among pupils and teachers.

If uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that enforce uniforms.

Uniforms prepare learners for the world of work, where employers are likely to require them to adhere to an appropriate dress code.

School uniforms are a good way of ensuring that all children are seen and treated equally.

Lesufi is Gauteng’s MEC for education.

Follow him on @Lesufi and on Facebook

Read more on:    education

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