Bob’s Algebra, Fred’s Hair: Should Schools Dictate Appearance?

With new stories of children sent home for failure to comply with their school’s uniform or appearance rules, we seem to be back to the question of whether schools should be allowed to dictate students’ appearance. On one side you have those supporting the students’ individuality, arguing their rights and freedom of expression are being infringed by the schools. On the other, those who argue that the students and their parents knew the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.

I don’t believe either of these positions quite cuts to the core of the issue. The answer to whether schools should be allowed to dictate pupils’ appearance must surely lie in what we believe schools should be achieving, what we believe their purpose is in respect of how they shape children.

Firstly, let’s just put to rest a couple of fallacies that are sometimes trotted out in support of uniform policies: that they save parents money, and that they create equality (thus reducing bullying). School uniforms are expensive, and children outgrow them at a rate of knots. Furthermore, children don’t wear uniforms outside school, thus creating a need for normal clothes in addition to the uniform. Normal clothes that could have also been worn to school if the school had no uniform. No, uniforms do not save parents money. Nor do they create equality. Students will always find a way to distinguish themselves: a way of wearing the uniform that is the way, accessories that you must have to be accepted. There will always be the popular ones and the unpopular ones. There will always be bullies. Uniforms don’t, as is sometimes suggested, prevent children from being able to tell whose parents have less money. The tendency of teenagers to form cliques, and to judge and pick on others, comes from their own insecurities, their fragile sense of self, and from what they learn from adults. (If you want to see the latter point in action, take a look at the comments from many adults on the articles about the girl with the leopard print hair. You’ll see where children learn judgemental behaviour.) Not only do uniforms not prevent students from bullying others, it could even be argued that uniforms, by telling children it is important to be the same, actively encourage the idea of intolerance towards those who are different.

Oh, and I suppose creation of a school identity should be briefly mentioned, too. It can, of course, be said that uniforms do achieve this aim (whether this needs to be an aim is perhaps more questionable, and that it can in any case be achieved without the need for a full uniform is indisputable). However, identifying the school certainly provides no justification for restricting students’ hairstyles, piercings, shoes or tightness of trousers (all the areas of appearance forming the usual subject matter of the disputed cases, in fact).

So, school uniforms are not about money or equality. School uniform and appearance codes are about conformity. Some rules exist to keep children safe. Some to tackle bullying or other unacceptable behaviour. Some are about the structure of the school day. Others the standard and level of work required from students. These rules all serve some specific purpose relating to the educating of children. What purpose do uniforms and rules on appearance serve? How do they further the students’ education? They have no point beyond the promotion of conformity. A rule for a rule’s sake.

Such rules are, of course, effective for the purpose of psychological conditioning. This is why so many exist in the military. Rules about tradition, appearance, ceremony, ritual. They have no direct significance to the work carried out by the armed forces but, indirectly, they are relevant to the effective running of a military. They exist to ingrain obedience and order; to create a mindset of following rules for the sake of following rules, even when you don’t agree with them or can’t see the point. It is not hard to see why that is important within the military, where it is necessary that people follow orders without question simply because they are orders. It is also, of course, important to encourage those in the armed forces to identify as a group, not as an individual. Rules that exist to make everyone look and act the same help with this. If the armed forces did not have a mindset of compliance and conformity, there could be chaos and disorder in potentially disastrous circumstances. These types of rules thus play their part in a form of psychological conditioning that is necessary for an effective, organised military.

But schools are not the military. Is conformity necessary for effective education? Or is it actually damaging to education, hindering free thinking and independence? This brings us back to the point: the need for uniforms and appearance codes surely depends on what you want to achieve. If your main priority is to make as many children as possible conformist and obedient, seen and not heard, then, yes, uniform codes probably help. They serve to instil in children the idea that they must all be the same and they must follow rules, regardless of whether the rule has a point.

Is that really what we want for our children? There is an important distinction between school children and the armed forces. The armed forces are a self-selecting group; they are people who have chosen to submit to these rules and this type of psychological conditioning. Children do not choose to go into the school system. Whilst those in the military know that all these rules they live by are a consequence of something they chose for themselves, for a child who does not agree with these school rules, they are simply alienating. Something forced upon them for no real reason. Do we want to alienate children from the education system?

Further, those in the military have selected their path, have decided that a military career is what they want, and worth obeying the rules for. Children’s futures are not yet decided. Among our children are the potential leaders, inventors, researchers, teachers, artists. For those futures, is conformity something to aspire to? Conformity and group mentality may be important in some areas of life, but in others freedom and individuality are everything. Do we hinder potential in those areas if we crush children with rules and uniformity?

Yes, children need to learn rules. Rules are part of society. But there are numerous other rules in school for them to follow. Just going to school is itself a rule. The question is not whether they need to follow rules, but whether they need to follow rules that serve no other purpose beyond the following of the rule.

Finally, what are we afraid of in allowing children to be individual, unregimented? Again, this is not the military. It is not a risk of chaos in a combat zone. If a whole year 9 maths class has strangely coloured hair and non-regulation shoes, what do we think is likely to happen? Is Bob’s ability to do quadratic equations dependent upon the colour of Fred’s hair? (In fact, ironically, anyone who thinks it is probably didn’t grasp the difference between independent and mutually exclusive probabilities in their own maths studies, despite their regulation hairstyle.)

I believe there is one thing military strategy can certainly teach us here, and it isn’t the psychological conditioning of conformity, it’s this: pick your battles. Being individualistic and non-conformist does not indicate that a child does not have potential in education and beyond, possibly even quite the opposite. If we are willing to alienate or exclude a child from education over purple hair or tight trousers, I can’t help but feel we may be missing what is actually important.

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  1. Mrs Tubbs says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings about this having just forked out a small fortune on secondary school uniform. Whilst schools need to pick their battles, children also need to learn that you can’t always wear what you like. Purple haired lad would’ve been taken aside in most places I’ve worked. Floppy haired chap may have got some raised eyebrows. Male dress codes in financial services are quite conservative.

    • Silly Mummy says:

      Fair points. On the other hand, does that mean that kids should get to express themselves while they have the chance? Is it then just something else falling into the category of forcing both responsibility and an identity onto children too young, when we could let them be free and explore who they are? I do also slightly feel that if they are not able to work out that things change when you’re an adult and go into work, maybe education has failed them whatever colour their hair was (& maybe they never had a future in financial services)! I wouldn’t assume that a kid going everywhere on a scooter, or wanting to wear wellies constantly, or thinking that the appropriate response to anything they disagree with is ‘that’s so gay’, wouldn’t realise that there are very few careers where you can scoot around your office in wellies yelling ‘that’s gay’. I personally would be willing to credit them with being able to draw the same conclusions about eventually having to give up leopard print hair if they aspire to becoming a judge.

      I see where you’re coming from though, and I know plenty of people do like them. But it does worry me that people are prepared to put so much emphasis on such things that they will actually exclude children from education.

      I feel for you on the small fortune! It’ll be if I have to get them for primary school (probably will) that I’ll be really annoyed! I hate seeing little kids in uniforms. It just seems so unnecessary to me & a waste of money.

      • Mrs Tubbs says:

        Having just done the round of secondary schools, these stories make me chuckle slightly. All the schools we saw mentioned their strict uniform policy during the evening, and all the parents nodded enthusiastically. (For some bizarre reason, uniform rules that are strictly enforced are seen as a Good Thing when looking at schools). Until, of course, they enforce them and it’s your child …!

        • Silly Mummy says:

          Haha – yes, so true. My mum was an infant school headteacher, & it drove her mad that parents thought a strictly enforced uniform was so important! What tells you how well a school will teach 4 year olds better than an insistence on making them look like they work on Wall Street, after all?

          • Mrs Tubbs says:

            It’s the second week of term in a new school and the Tubblet has a dentition for having a rolled up skirt … I shall go sit on the stairs and think about what I’ve done …!

  2. I tend to take the middle ground on this issue. I think that schools should have uniforms. I believe they do have a role in facilitating learning. When a child put their uniform on it has a small but significant influence on the way they think and behave. When they put on a uniform, they also adopt the role of a student.
    That being said, I think the strictness about uniforms is wrong. In answer to the comments above you are right there is an accepted code of dress in many work places, but very few will demand the levels of obedience demanded by some schools. As adults in a workplace, if we had to wear an exact uniform, we would expect our empoyer to supply it, if we have to buy it ourselves we would not put up with being told which shop to use and what brands to buy.
    And the boy with the purple hair. When he is an adult will he aiming for a career that demands strict conformity, And as an adult would we demand his conformity. I doubt it.

    • Silly Mummy says:

      Very good points. I think that is a great point about the likelihood that the non-conformist child will want a really strict job. I agree, probably not. I think in some cases kids do have a rebellious phase and then drop it, but if they drop it of their own accord it won’t be a problem for work. For those where that is part of their personality, that is likely to be true in career choices too, as you say. & those are the kids I think this can be particularly unfair on – why focus on trying to change them into something they aren’t. To me, it just doesn’t matter that much. I’m aware that I am probably in a minority though – the reason uniforms are so prevalent is because many people think they are important.

      Thanks for your input!

  3. Sarah says:

    I am a secondary school teacher and so perhaps have a slightly different perspective on this – all the schools I have taught in up here in Scotland have had very similar uniforms. They tend to just be black trousers/skirt and jumper and a white shirt with the school tie. This means that parents can buy the uniform from anywhere and also the kids get to show some degree of individuality in what they wear. Even though the uniform is fairly relaxed there are still those who push the boundaries – for example most schools don’t allow jeans (even if they’re black), some don’t allow leggings, some allow trainers others don’t… As a teacher I don’t actually care what the kids wear, I care if they are interested and engaged, and trying their best. However, I have to spend the first 10 minutes of every lesson telling kids to take their hoodies off, or scarves off, or asking if they have a note explaining why they don’t have a tie. I wonder how much time is wasted by staff chasing up uniform issues which would be better spent actually teaching! I do think some sort of dress code would be appropriate for schools – for example on non-uniform days most schools I’ve taught in have a ‘no football tops’ rule, and if anything a dress code of sorts would be more useful in preparing kids for the world of work where most of us do get to choose what we where but have to dress appropriately for the situation. Anyway, I feel I have rambled enough…to conclude, I agree 🙂

    • Silly Mummy says:

      Great perspective. &, yes, I expect enforcing the uniform does waste a lot of school time – it certainly did at my school! I suspect that ensuring pupils didn’t have too much of their shirts pulled out to make them look a bit baggy may not have been the most useful thing that our teachers could have been doing with their day. I wouldn’t particularly be bothered about any uniform, personally, but I think the more relaxed, loose codes that are not onerous to buy, as you mention, are not so bad. It is the determination to enforce strict codes at the expense of more important things like keeping children engaged in schools, and the belief that you should also be able to control things like hair, which should be personal choice, that really bother me. And uniforms for primary children, which is just ridiculous and unnecessary, and seems to be based on a bizarre belief that making small children wear daft uniforms somehow indicates quality in a school! Thank you for your great insight.

  4. Couldn’t have put it better myself! Brilliant blog!
    I remember having an argument with a teacher in year 9, who said I wasn’t allowed to have my nails painted.
    I asked how the colour of my nails affects the quality of my work, and instead of being given an answer, I was told off for challenging the rules.
    I also was told to wipe my eyeliner off in Year 7 (I had hardly any on) after being singled out in assembly for wearing make up.
    The teachers were really mean about it and I went home crying in the middle of the day.
    I totally agree with this blog on all levels!!

  5. Rachel says:

    I love this post. I am willing to go along with uniform (otherwise my kids couldn’t go to school and I’m not keen to home educate), however, I don’t really see the point. I don’t really think that uniform makes children better learners, and if there is evidence to support this argument that gets trotted out I’d like to see it.

    Other countries in Europe with good standards of education manage perfectly well without uniform.

    I think that a large proportion of potential teaching time is wasted by policing uniform and I think that it is in the nature of teens, in particular, to rebel and want their own identity and I see no harm in them doing so.

    I also don’t think that the ‘prepare them for the world of work’ argument stands up. Work environments have fewer rules than schools – whilst most high schools incorporate ties in their uniforms, many workplaces no longer do so.

    I despair that employers are now looking for people who can think far more creatively and ‘out of the box’ in our supercharged technological age and yet, in schools, creativity is most definitely squashed as far as possible.

    Sorry for the long comment but you’ve set me off… 😉

  6. Jennifer says:

    I completely agree with you! Uniforms and policing students’ appearance DOES enforce conformity and limit individuality. I’ve been a teacher and worked in higher education for a fair number of years, so I’ve heard a lot of the “arguments” for uniforms that you neatly debunk.
    It’s interesting that you compare the military and education. I wondered if you’ve read Henry Giroux (The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education and other books) about the idea that our school systems are not designed to promote free thought or creativity, but to condition good, homogenized, obedient workers. It’s a depressing thought but sadly I’ve found it rings all too true. #wineandboobs

  7. Catie says:

    In Holland children do not wear uniform. They are not expected to confirm and are encouraged to have freedom of thought, speech and choice.
    I think that uniform is a symptom of the overriding message that we all need to be the same.
    Why??? No we don’t.
    Bollocks to the short sighted manager who can not see the potential and creative thinking in someone just because their hair is too floppy or the wrong colour or because someone has a large tattoo etc etc
    Judge people on their worth not on their looks.

  8. I’m a bit undecided on this. I think in Primary schools, the uniform is completely pointless and serves no purpose except stressing out mum and dad and having them spend a small fortune.
    In secondary school, I think it serves the purpose of teaching children that in the real world, you go to work and if your boss says you have to dress a certain way, you have to even if you don’t like it. I think it would be more appropriate to have a sort of business casual dress code than a specific uniform though so children still have some freedom of expression.
    I really enjoyed this post, very thought provoking! #wineandboobs

  9. I like uniforms but I don’t think schools should be dictating hairstyles etc unless something is offensive. Saying that many people work in jobs which have strict dress codes so in a way this could be preparing them.
    Personally though, I though the leopard print hair was awesome and would quite like some myself…if I wouldn’t get sacked because of it.


  10. Musing Mumma says:

    Interesting article and points. I’m still not sure where I sit in this argument, as I see valid arguments for both sides. I was always jealous of the school down the road from mine who got to wear whatever they want. That said, what I wanted was brand labels. Sure, I had a great outfit for a casual day (thanks to generous aunts), but not enough of an extensive awesome bragging wardrobe for each day of school. Clothes matter when you’re younger (I’m not for one minute saying that should), and while I agree with most of your arguments about uniforms not creating equality, there is something easier in knowing all your peers are wearing the same thing. Really tough one. My daughter will be going to a school with no uniform and when it comes down to it, the only thing that I’m considering is whether the education provided meets my need as a parent. Clothing policies are peripheral to me, but you have got me thinking … #brillianblogposts

  11. Alison says:

    Excellent thought-provoking post. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, tbh, except that my daughter looks adorable in her uniform, but I’m new to having a school-aged child, I’m sure the novelty will wear off, and it’s not the best base on which to base school policies. You’ve made a lot of excellent points.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with you on the point about equality, . It’s not just about children being dressed in Primark clothes as opposed to expensive labels, but about them not having any decent clothes at all. I had AWFUL clothes when I was growing up, really just dreadful, and uniform removes this to some extent, although I absolutely agree it’s not a perfect system. #wineandboobs

  12. Really interesting. And interesting comments too. I went to school in another country for a time and had no uniform…to be honest I was relieved to get back to a uniform but that could just be the habit drilled into me! Or it could be that I found the stresses of trying to wear the right trousers and the right shoes a bit exhausting when I was trying to learn my french vocab.

    In the last school I went to we had a colour policy…black trousers, white top and green jumper/or cardigan. There was a lot of individual expression within this quite safe formula. Worked for the school to maintain whatever it needed to maintain, and worked for us.

    Oh I think the cost of uniform is an issue, either education if free (paid for with taxes) or it isn’t….someone commented that if you worked somewhere that demanded a uniform it would be supplied, quite right. Good point that I hadn’t thought of.

    My husband has a uniform (they even have different outfits for different segments of the job…ie. playing, training, travelling…yes travelling!). I’ve always teased him about this…I definitely think it’s about creating an identity in this case and perhaps also to help infantise the workforce (but that’s a whole post!).

    I wonder where uniforms in schools originated from, wouldn’t be surprised if it has military roots…just musing now, will sign off.

    Great post! x

  13. Tatyana Kelé says:

    I’m a 15 year old girl and I wish my school principal thought like you?I am currently researching because a group of students (including myself) are planning in writing a letter to the principal to get her to see our side. Honestly, in our time, we need creativity and a lot of school rules squash it. Bummer.? I agree, constant policing on uniform really is a COLOSAL waste of the schools “precious” teaching time (I mean if its precious why should you spend ten minutes on my hairstyle??) plus, it’s really boring. In my school, you either have neat hair or you don’t have hair?, that’s it. I’m rocking short ?hair right now, because if I’m not allowed to have my bobcut I’d rather go without it. It’s part of me. Why can’t teachers just accept that it’s what we want considering that they have already decided pretty much everything else? It irks me really. I hate it.?

    ☝But on the bright side, I found this ?post and this just might help in convincing everybody so thanks! And by the way, I’m stealing your post because I couldn’t have said it better myself??

  14. We’ve never had a school uniform. Funnily enough when we first started at the school, I was really disappointed about this. I have no idea why now! I loved the bit suggesting that by insisting everyone looks the same, it’s teaching kids intolerance of anyone who’s different.
    Thanks for linking to #effitfriday

  15. Terrie Knibb says:

    I am quite clear that an appearance policy does not promote equality. My son has Prosopagnosia, a condition which renders him unable to recognise faces. It is becoming increasingly apparent that many people on the autistic spectrum share this condition.

    The insistence on a uniform and similar hair cuts increases his difficulty in recognising people. He relies on those very differences to know who he is with. Not only does the inability to know who he is with cause social isolation, it also makes him very vulnerable. Add to this the rapid changes that puberty brings to tone of voice and bdoy, facial shape, you can see how, the uniform appearance policies many schools have work not for equality, but inequality.

  16. Alice says:

    At work I find it impossible to tow the line and enforce the uniform policy that I do not really agree with. WHat does it matter if they have green trainers on instead of black shoes?!? CHildren’s clothes can be so costly and they grow out of them in such a short time. And what they are wearing doesn’t stop them from learning!
    One exception to this is when children wear superhero clothing or princess outfits it does change their mindset, I feel. So, if I could be in charge of things I would ask for children not to wear this sort of thing to school. But other than that, bring on the purple hair!
    x Alice

  17. arthurwears says:

    interesting read. As a Teacher myself, i’m torn. I attended a primary school that had no uniform (I remember saying i wanted to go to that particular school because the other school did have a uniform and i didn’t want to wear a tie like a boy lol). I’ve seen how inappropriate some young girls (primary school age) can dress on ‘dress down days’ which is always a difficult situation to deal with as a school when the main focus should really be on teaching and learning. Uniform definitely makes it easier to keep groups of children safe and together when you are away from school grounds on trips etc – it also creates a ‘smart’ image of the school in public ( but equally can have the opposite effect if some children aren’t obeying the uniform code compared to others, which would be more obvious with a group of children in uniform rather than non-uniform).
    Ofsted have commented on schools uniform policy and the neatness of pupils in the past ( and ofsted is a big deal for any school) I wonder if having no uniform may put the onus back on parents to make sure their children are dressed appropriately rather than linking it to a behaviour issue in school – and thus meaning bodies such as ofsted can really focus on judging teaching and learning.

    A relevant debate. #justanotherlinky

  18. Min says:

    This was a really interesting post, and definitely got me thinking. As a secondary school teacher myself it;s something that comes up in conversation a lot at school, as you can imagine, mostly with students complaining about it! There are two things I think are important here. One that has already been mentioned in one or two comments above is that school is a preparation for work, and most workplaces have dress codes or uniforms of some sort. This is very often the line I take with students, as clearly one of the roles that schools play, at least at secondary level, is to prepare the students for the workplace. The other is that there is some evidence to show that “sweating the small stuff” as it were, i.e. being strict with uniform, does have a positive impact on teaching and learning as it encourages adherence to the behaviour policy in general. This goes hand in hand with why, as some other commenters have mentioned, parents often value a strong uniform policy, as it sends a clear message to the students, their parents and the wider community that the school has high standards. It is my opinion (although this is anecdotal and I am sure there are schools that buck the trend) that when there was a trend towards more relaxed uniform standards in some schools 20 or 30 years ago, standards in those schools dropped overall.

    That said (sorry I am writing an essay here!) I can think of several occasions from my own experience where I felt that my school (not the one I currently work at, but a previous one) went too far with its uniform policy, particularly regarding hairstyles. It’s about common sense, I think. But you are right to question the point of school uniform. There is a trend at the moment towards schools being very strict with uniform, and I have read some interesting things on this from a feminist angle as well, about how school uniform for girls can be particularly problematic.

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