Making them conform

Cross posted

The Dom Post Saturday magazine had an angsty article about school uniforms last week (not on-line), with the usual pros and cons. Easier for parents vs reducing individuality, cost vs cost, fewer playground comparisons vs colours that do not suit my child. My children have attended both uniformed and non-uniformed schools, and as a parent, I can see advantages either way. On balance, as a parent, in some ways I really don’t care.

But as a citizen, I care deeply. Here’s what one principal said in favour of school uniforms.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a uniform does two things: it creates a sense of belonging and equality in the playground, and creates low-level compliance that says they are part of something bigger than themselves. There is a sense of being part of a community and there are rules.”

Great! Let’s force all those kids into a mould, tell them what they should look like and how they should behave, and turn them into yet more foot soldiers for compliance and obedience and fitting in and doing exactly what everyone else is doing, and subordinating yourself to some great society in the sky.

I have long known that schools are sites for reproducing conformity, but it’s rare to have it stated so explicitly. Yes, I do find school uniforms terribly convenient, and yes, I think that there may well be a reduction in some of the issues around peer pressure if the kids are all wearing the same clothes. But these advantages are as nothing compared to the huge harm of deliberately shaping children into rule-following units.

And as a parent, I care very much about my children being forced to fit into particular patterns of behaviour. No matter how much I encourage my daughters to explore new ideas and new ways of thinking, their schools shout back at them that they must conform, and must fit in, and must be like everyone else. Heaven help the child who is in the least bit different from the norm.

It’s almost enough to make me want to home school.


17 comments on “Making them conform

  1. mimbles says:

    As a teen, having experienced both uniform and non-uniform schools (the latter in the US and with a very limited wardrobe) I was emphatically pro-uniform. As a parent I’m coming to hate them more and more, mostly because the schools my kids attend have the kids wearing the mini business suit for boys and totally impractical dress/tunic for girls versions.

    I’m very much enjoying the fact that my 12 year old daughter chose to wear the winter trousers despite being the only one of her friends to do so this year and my 14 year old son’s total disinterest in shaving and consequent nascent moustache makes me positively gleeful 🙂

  2. Oh dear me. Your child would have to conform? How dreadful. Teaching children to follow rules is a “huge harm”? Well I never. Makes you wonder how society has staggered along under the bruising burden of a century or so of free compulsory education. Wh s t, wndr, tht m tlrbl crtn wsh nvr t mt th thr’s chldrn — r th thr, fr tht mttr? Give me foot-soldiers for compliance and obedience any day. Strange to say, those huddled masses nevertheless manage to harbour a reassuringly robust pool of creativity, individuality and joy, perhaps because they haven’t suffered the massive neglect of parents who are too soft-witted to do them the kindness of letting them learn to regulate their own behaviour by learning limits. If the author finds that her children’s schools shout that they must conform, perhaps she just needs to find another school? r hm-schlng wld b vn bttr: tchrs nd prs wll b sprd hvng t tlrt th frcd cmpn f hr nfttrd ffsprng..

    [Portions of this comment have been disemvowelled because the commenter made nasty remarks about my children. While obviously I don’t like nasty comments about me, I tolerate them, but making nasty comments about my children is unacceptable. Deborah]

  3. che tibby says:

    hmmm… i refer to brave new world, in which even the slightest difference amongst identical clones is magnified.

    i really question whether uniforms equate to monoculture. sure the playing field is “level” on the way they’re dressing – taking into account that poor kids still wear 2nd-hand uniforms, and less-than-wealthy families can afford a uniform where they can’t afford every flash new fashion – but there are all the other accouterments. iphones, new shoes, hair.

    there are plenty of ways to find wiggle room within the system, there always has been.

  4. Raymond A Francis says:

    To a certain extent like you Deborah I am over uniforms, there a good and bad points but it does amuse me to see when mufti is allowed 90%+ of the students wear similar clothes (what ever is cool ) with only those that want to be different daring to show their individuality. Mostly the same students who wear their uniforms in the most un-uniform way possible

  5. Gae says:

    In 1975, in Hamburg on a visit to the in-laws, our then 6 yo daughter spent several mornings watching the local youngsters trooping off to school. And, observant little madam that she was (and is) wanted to know why nobody was in uniform.
    The result was that back in Sydney, for the rest of the school year, she was adamant — no uniform for her !! Discussed this with teachers, the matter was simply ignored. After the Christmas holidays, she had forgotten all about it, and went back into uniform without any drama.
    And neither of my pigeon pair turned into a corporate ‘drone’, one now runs the family toolmaking and plastic extrusion business, and Herself is involved in training and caring for Quarter Horses for their family business.
    Adolescents have always worn ‘uniform’ – just walk down the main street and check it out.

    Gae, in Callala Bay

  6. M-HM-H says:

    I agree with you Deborah. I’m conflicted too, but conformity is not the reason I see merit in school uniforms. When my children went to a Catholic school in Upper Hutt they wore uniform, but I was gobsmacked when I discovered that the uniform was the main reason that several non-Catholic parents choose the school – not the quality of community life or the supposed higher level of education: it was simply the fact that the kids wore uniform.

    And discussion of even the tiniest change to the uniform caused major disruption – I once innocently suggested at a parent’s evening that the expensive green machine-knitted jumpers rule be widened to include green hand-knitted jumpers (natch!) or green sweatshirts, as many of the parents were able to make these cheaply. It was as if the roof had fallen in, or Jesus had appeared to tell people they had to tolerate gay marriage! Apparently I was hastening the end of civilisation As We Know It. We got hand-knitted through, but only if it were knitted in an approved yarn in one approved shade of green. No sweatshirts, although these were a cheap alternative for mothers who sewed. This was not the school administration; the head couldn’t have cared less. It was the parents.

  7. [Comment deleted – see my comment policy. Deb]

  8. Mindy says:

    I like the uniform policy at my eldest’s school – the kids wear red polo shirts either ones from the school shop with the logo or ones from Target/Big W/Kmart as long as they are red. Some red t-shirts (no logos) are overlooked because it is a small school and the families are pretty well known. Winter is blue tracksuit pants or blue trousers, summer is blue shorts and netball shirts for the girls if they want them. There is also a summer tunic for the girls if they want one. It is all easy care stuff, the school doesn’t insist you buy from them and it is all pretty easy going. On occassion where eldest has had to wear something else because the washing isn’t dry they don’t even expect a note. The other primary school has a slightly stricter uniform policy, which surprised me, and the local Catholic school has a quite rigid policy even down to the colour of hair ties and ribbons (and number) you are allowed to wear. Girls only of course, boys must have short hair. They also have rules about when you can wear the winter uniform and when you can break out the shorts and skirts.

    I didn’t choose the school on the basis of the uniform policy, but I’m glad they are as relaxed about it as they are. That given I do like that there is a uniform, it makes eldest getting ready in the morning really easy because he knows what to put on and there are no decisions to be made. I think youngest might be a bit trickier as she is used to having a choice, but hopefully she won’t kick up too much of a fuss. On a very simple level it’s nice to be able to identify which schools the kids saying hello to my son come from as well because he knows a lot more kids from other schools than I would have expected and because of reasons that is important to me. Also I can learn the names of kids I might see at his school who come up and ask me if I am his Mum. For my son having something like a uniform is important because he likes rules.

    I think it does create a sense of school as a community which is important to me now, while eldest is at primary. The local highschool has a uniform as well, from looking at the kids it is fairly relaxed too lots of individuality there. So TL;DR me- I think I come down on the side of a relaxed uniform policy.

    • Deborah says:

      The school my girls were at in Adelaide had a fairly easy care uniform too, and items could be bought from the school, or from Kmart / Big W / Target. But they were moderately strict about it. I enjoyed the ease of the uniform, and as I said in the post, I really don’t much care either way. But I *do* mind the idea that it’s all about creating compliance, and obeying The Rules, because they are The Rules.

  9. Mittenz says:

    From a (former) student’s perspective and not a parents.

    The main issue I had when I had to wear a uniform was that some of the rules around accessories were never written down anywhere that you could read them, so you got in trouble for things that weren’t even against the rules. And if you tried to politely ask, you’d get in trouble for disobedience. And I was one of the good kids. I can’t imagine how unfairly treated some of the other kids probably were at the hands of all-powerful, always-right teachers.

    I think if the rules are clear, having a uniform doesn’t make much difference to how kids grow up. Some of the teachers abusing their power however…

  10. M-H says:

    I love that school uniforms items can be bought at chain stores in AUs. Of course, this is partly because pretty much all schools here have uniform, whereas in NZ it is not common for public schools.

    And Deb, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the opportunity to read your comments policy before: I love it!

  11. Mindy says:

    I don’t think we have the compliance things at my son’s school. They focus much more on being part of the school community which is one of the school’s strengths. I would certainly be concerned if the Principal ever came out with anything about conformity. Silly me, I thought school was about having a safe environment to learn stuff, including stuff about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. Obviously I was wrong. Why don’t we just put kids straight into the army?

    Plus, really, the bit about creating equality in the playground is crap. There will always be kids who have newer backpacks (even if they are school mandated ones) and kids who have the hand me down one, kids who are impeccably groomed every day and kids who seemed to have slept in their clothes. There are numerous little markers which the kids know which set out the kids from families with money and kids without. Or kids from families who give a toss and those who don’t – NB kids from families with $$ won’t necessarily be the best groomed either.

  12. Gae says:

    And you should have heard the teacherly furor at my selective HS, when we all discovered grey panty hose, and gave the old grey LISLE stockings the heave-ho. The End of the World was definitely Nigh !!

    Gae, in Callala Bay

  13. mimbles says:

    Most of the discourse around uniform at my kids’ schools seems to be about image, how the school presents itself, how smart the teenaged boys look wearing their tie in winter, how cute the kindy kids look in their miniature business wear. And we’re talking plain old public schools here. I strongly suspect it’s about competing with private schools for customers. Consequently compliance is a bit of a thing, but not for its own sake as such. If they were allowed to wear comfortable polo shirts and shoes suitable for running around in then I’d be perfectly happy. Oh, and most of the uniform isn’t available in chain stores, the primary school has a uniform shop which is the only place you can get logo stuff and all the girls’ uniforms, and the high school’s uniform is stocked by 2 small local retailers, which is nice in the support local business sense but very expensive. Maybe one day I’ll have the energy to campaign for changes…

  14. Linda Radfem says:

    Of course it’s about control. The same way the police and armed forces need to be controlled. When school attendance first became compulsory there was no attempt to hide the fact that it was about moulding future citizens in accordance with state interests. Somewhere along the line we got hoodwinked into believeing that it’s all about Our Children’s best interests.

    I don’t buy the level playing field defense. My 16 year old’s high school has recently installed a uniform shop. Parents can’t get the uniform anywhere else now. The school can charge what they like and a winter jumper is close to one hundred dollars. This means that compulsory garments can only be obtained through the institution enforcing the compulsory wearing of that garment. Adults wouldn’t tolerate this for themselves, but they’ll tolerate it for their children.

    We send a lot of mixed messages to our young people in schools; we promote the neoliberal mandate of individual achievement, but at the same time we enforce this lockstep uniform rule.

    Any wonder they see us as hypocrites?

  15. Sanctuary says:

    I can see it both way on uniforms. But when I went to school we had a (light blue) airtex polo for summer and a long sleeved gray shirt for winter, a v neck gray sweater, long gray shorts and a school blazer or bomber jacket, all of which (except the blazers – they were usually second hand though) could be got at the local menswear store that also stocked “standard’ uniforms. Only the senior school or the first XV wore the “number one” outfit with white shirt and tie and long pants and stuff.

    Nowadays boys are being strangled by ties and suits all the time for no other reason I can discern than to make the cover of school prospectus look posh. that is just silly.

    Perhaps the answer to parents being “soaked” for extra dosh by compulsory uniform items that can only be purchased from the monopoly provider (the school shop) would be for the government to introduce a “standard” school uniform for all state schools?

  16. Carol says:

    This comment is in relation to your pre-weekend post on brightness and gloom.
    I just wanted to say that I do hope the gloom is subsiding.
    I imagine the trials of the dreaded PBRF are causing gnashing of teeth in your household – they certainly have been in ours, though happily the task was finished last weekend. Thank the FSM it only comes around once every five years.
    The strangelings (beelings? pupae?) might be interested to hear that ‘Kaitangata Twitch’, the brilliant Maori television adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s novel, is out on DVD. Just as good the second time round.

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