Tuesday, 22 May 2012

School uniforms: yes or no

Children, and indeed, the entire family benefit when schools demand that all students wear uniforms. I speak from experience. I wore uniforms from Grade One to Grade Twelve when I attended all-girl schools in my youth.

Our day-to-day garb was as follows: a navy-blue serge tunic with three fat pleats in front and three more in back. There was a belt of the same heavy fabric which circled the waist and fastened in front with a single navy button. Under the tunic was a lighter blue cotton blouse, with long sleeves and a round Peter-Pan collar. The tunic had to fall below the knees. On the legs we wore nylons with seams up the back. If the seams weren't straight, we heard about it. On cool days in Spring and Fall, there was a wool, navy-blue blazer which could be worn over top.

Individually, anyone wearing this outfit could only be described as incredibly frumpy, but in a group, strangely enough, we looked impressive, especially when we wore our chapeaus. Topping off the ensemble was a navy pillbox hat, which had to be fastened on with a hat pin or the slightest breeze would sweep it away like a Frisbee.

The main advantage, I imagine, for most families was the reasonable cost. I had two tunics. While I wore one, the other was at the dry-cleaners. There were three cotton blouses which my mother washed and ironed every week. You only had to replenish your wardrobe every three or four years as you outgrew them. Those tunics never wore out! The blazers could usually go through a season with only one trip to the cleaners.

There was no competition or jealousy because some girls had better or more expensive clothes than others. We were more inclined to focus on outdoing each other in obtaining good grades. It also cut down on the number of cliques that often form when girls congregate in homogeneous groups.

Wearing uniforms also promoted good behavior as we traveled from home to school and back again. We were immediately recognizable as "St. Patrick's Girls" and any untoward antics would be reported back to the school, and we were well aware of that fact. The city wasn't so large in those days; we could well be reported by name as well as by school.

In addition, we had many lectures about stopping into the coffee shops, smoking, and talking to the boys, thereby "disgracing the uniform". We were never sure which of these offenses was the most serious, but we decided that, if we intended to indulge in any of them, we surely wouldn't wear the uniform while we did!

The uniforms also promoted school spirit. When you spotted one, even at a distance, you knew the girl wearing it was a kindred spirit. Even if she was someone you weren't particularly fond of, she was "one of us", and as such, merited recognition, consideration and friendship. There were always topics for conversation: homework, teachers, tests or upcoming holidays. We seemed to have more in common than the girls and boys in public schools.

I think we formed closer friendships because of the uniforms. Even today, more than fifty years later, I still know where most of the girls in my class are and what they're doing. We are almost like an extended family.

When my four children were ready for high school, I chose to send them to one where the students wore uniforms. They weren't too happy about the idea at first, but soon came to see the advantages. Because they are close in age, we could never have afforded to outfit them to match the stylish clothing standards of some of their friends. Uniforms remove the disparity. Everyone dresses the same way; everyone starts on an equal footing.

The young people will create their own special identities through their personalities,their characters and their abilities. These are better criteria on which to be assessed than on how well their parents can afford to dress them. Uniforms make this fairer judgment possible.

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