Recently at assembly, I addressed the topic of uniforms with the students. In the short time that I have been at the School, uniform has already been raised as a topic of discussion. Students tend to be more interested in potential modifications to the uniform, of challenging the reasonableness of an aspect of the uniform, or the introduction of more mufti days. Some parents want to let me know how smart the students look, or how slovenly the students look. Some teachers want me to know either that they are tired of being the only ones to maintain standards, or that they think we are focussing too much on the externals and we should relax.
I have given up on satisfying everyone regarding this matter, but I thought it might be worthwhile outlining the good things about school uniforms with my top four reasons why students should wear uniforms.
The first reason is that school uniforms are a great leveller. Most of us are acutely able to register those who have and those who have not. Whether we are comparing homes, cars, holidays, handbags, phones, shoes, pencil cases or lunch boxes, we find ways to evaluate the levels of privilege that different people enjoy. School uniforms take one of these possible comparisons out of play. All Trinity students of an equivalent stage of schooling wear the same clothes, regardless of the extent of their outside wardrobe. It doesn't prevent the invidious creep of envy or contempt - these are deeply rooted in our hearts - but it removes it from one key aspect of our children's daily lives.
The second reason is that school uniforms are a cue to 'work'. At the start of each year, I experience a symbolic setting aside of my summer clothes, in order to put on my work clothes. Away go the flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts, and on goes the suit and tie. I have to admit that it grates; I would prefer to stay in the holiday gear. However, the suit reminds me that I am back on deck, in work mode. The first thing I do when I get home on a Friday night is take off the suit and tie. Changing clothes changes the mode in which I am operating. Donning sports gear has the same effect. So do pyjamas. School uniform functions the same way for our students. It is a non-verbal symbolic cue that reminds them that they are changing modes. From holiday to study. From leisure to work. From freedom to structure. From lazing to focus. Putting the School uniform on is one way that our children change gears.
Third, school uniforms connect individuals to a community. Uniforms are a public statement and a personal reminder that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Living in a society and culture that prioritises the individual over the collective, it is no bad thing for young people to learn that they are part of a bigger community. They have obligations to people other than themselves; a theological way of expressing this is inter-relationalism. Our identity is formed in the web of relationships that connect us to others; the uniform is a tangible symbol of this connection.
Finally, school uniforms make life simple. The reality is that school uniforms make it just that bit easier to get to school on time! I spoke with a friend whose children are educated in an American school where there is no uniform. The amount of angst involved in identifying and assembling outfits on a daily basis occupies literally hours each week, as well as significant cost. Too much choice actually brings anxiety and inhibits our ability to make decisions. By taking choice in this matter out of students' hands, we actually de-stress this aspect of their lives.
In every school that I know, some students push the boundaries of acceptable uniform standards, whether it is about the top button being done up, the socks being pulled up, the shirt tucked in, the length, or the polish of the shoes. There are innumerable little ways that students will test the boundaries. Each school needs to work out where, when, with whom and how to hold the line on different matters.
My exhortation to students called them to wear the uniform well. I am thankful that so many do. We appreciate the support of our parents in holding to our expectations regarding uniforms.
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