An article today on the BBC website reports on a school in England which sent home 150 students for failing to adhere to its strict uniform policy (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-29911712). The article is indicative of a recent trend across the UK for a return to formal school uniforms. This trend has also been evident in Scotland, as many schools have introduced uniform where none previously existed, or replaced a previous ‘casual’ or comfortable uniform with one that is extremely formal, including a blazer and tie. All sorts of reasons are put forward for this, including:
- Preparing young people for work by getting them to dress properly (although I note here that there are few jobs that insist on ties for girls).
- Improving school ethos and fostering a sense of identity. For example, one secondary school justified its tightening of uniform policy to parents by stating: “The introduction of a full formal uniform is the most effective way to ensure a visible daily commitment to and identification with the school. […] The introduction of a rigorous and formal dress code is the most effective way of ensuring that this develops in the future. The likely impact on our young people will be to encourage their sense of pride in their school, develop their sense of community and hopefully instill (sic) a more rigorous approach to all aspects of school life.”
- In another secondary school, the uniform in general, and the tie in particular has been posited as being necessary for reasons of safety and effective learning; it is said to improve safety buy allowing identification of intruders (presumably not in uniform) and posters on classroom walls exhort student to bring the three essential items for learning – a pen, a jotter and a tie.
These are strong claims, frequently made in support of school uniform. But are they backed by the research evidence? Is there a causal link between formal school uniform and school ethos? These include a sense of belonging and school identity, as well as student behaviour and attitude. Do schools without a uniform have a worse ethos?
The simple answer is that there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal. Claims that uniform improves school ethos have little basis in research, and can be seen as little more than assertions (e.g. see http://gradworks.umi.com/36/17/3617787.html) . Moreover, two decades of school effectiveness and school improvement policy and research have proven only one thing: that there is no hard and fast recipe for improving schools. Schools are messy and complex social organisations, and what works in one school may well prove to be ineffective in the next.
That said, there are certain features that research suggests are common to good schools. In this short paper, I offer some observations about some of these common features, and then comment specifically on the research concerning school uniform.
Features of successful schools
Good schools might be characterised as places where:
- Young people feel safe. Effective action to deal with bullying, teachers who listen to student concerns and an ethos of respect (student to student, teacher to teacher, and especially between students and teachers).
- Young people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them. This right is enshrined in Scottish law but despite this, many schools are undemocratic places, which often play only lip service to the views of students. More genuine participation might involve a student council being allowed to debate key issues, including whether there should be a school uniform and what form it should take. And yet discussion of this topic is often banned.
- School ethos is good. This is about more than school image and compliance; it concerns the school being a thriving community, with opportunities for civic engagement by students. Extra-curricular (e.g. lunchtime clubs) and co-curricular (e.g. a youth parliament) activities are known to be effective ways of enhancing school ethos, because they offer opportunities for students to participate in the civic society of the school.
- There are clear rules, expectations and procedures. This is especially important in respect of student behaviour. Schools where there is a high proportion of uninspiring teaching and inconsistent behaviour management tend to experience behaviour problems. Effective schools deal effectively with misbehaviour, both through expectations and environment, and through clear procedures to deal with misbehaviour when it occurs.
- There are effective strategies for a varied approach to teaching and learning. Schools with a one dimensional approach to learning and teaching, which focus on getting through the curriculum content, tend not to challenge students to think and develop cognitively. When students are not engaged and motivated, they learn less effectively. Good schools are those that succeed in bringing the curriculum to life through powerful teaching. In respect of this, and the above point about behaviour management, the work of the American educational psychologist Alfie Kohn is interesting – he advocates an engaging curriculum as an alternative to behaviour management systems based around rewards (see Punished by Rewards – http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/pbracwak.htm).
- There is a well-articulated vision in the school about the purposes of education. One must ask whether education is just about exam results or whether it is about developing active and effective citizens who can contribute to a better world. These questions are especially pertinent in the light of the four capacities of the new Curriculum for Excellence.
- Communication is effective. Clear lines of communication between the school and parents are important, as is clear communication within school. Regular assemblies have been shown to help this process.
Does school uniform enhance school ethos?
As indicated, school uniforms have been claimed to:
- Raise attainment
- Improve behaviour
- Enhance school climate
- Improve attendance
In fact, such claims are largely unsupported by research evidence. There is little British research on the topic, but the American research suggests that such claims are anecdotal and misleading. So what do we know about uniforms?
- School uniforms are a practice dating back to the 16th century in the United Kingdom, and are most commonly found elsewhere in former UK colonies – in many other countries they are uncommon outside of the private sector (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_uniforms_by_country). Many countries in Europe and North America and do not have school uniforms.
- In the UK, some excellent schools do not have a uniform. A good example is James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh – a high achieving school with an excellent ethos based upon activity and a strong sense of a school community. The 2010 school HMIE inspection reported that the school had particular strengths:
- The active contribution of all staff to the life of the school and their positive relationships with young people.
- Courteous, articulate and confident young people who are very proud of their school.
- The impressive range of activities for young people to broaden their experiences and achieve widely especially in music, sports and international education.
- The attainment of many young people in national examinations.
- The committed leadership of the head teacher in promoting a vibrant culture.
- School uniforms are often found in excellent schools – but this can only be claimed to be a correlation, not a causal relationship. In other words, there are other factors that make these schools excellent, and the school uniform is not necessarily the factor that makes them so.
- School uniforms can work well when they are supported by parents and students (i.e. instituted as a result of a process of consultation). Conversely, they can create a point of resistance and potentially cause behaviour problems when imposed.
- Uniforms can create a halo effect – creating a better impression of a school than is actually merited. This can serve to cover up problems.
- Some research suggests that school uniforms can suppress individuality and creativity – arguably qualities encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence.
In the light of the above, I would suggest that claims that school uniforms will improve school ethos are not supported by research. Of course, this does not necessarily matter if students, parents and teachers support their use. But we should avoid justifying them on spurious grounds. And moreover, there are also good reasons for not enforcing uniforms, including cost, practicality and safety; for instance, recent media reports point to the high incidence of sexual harassment faced by girls in school uniform (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/collective-responsibility-on-child-sex-abuse-9829611.html).
These are emotive issues, characterised by deeply-held views, and I am therefore sure that my observations will stimulate debate. As ever, I welcome constructive comments on the blog, in response….