As students in Australia get ready to head back (or even start) school, many are making sure that they have the right gear, in this part of the work this usually includes the school uniform. In an era that we espouse so-called ‘21st century’ education, characterised by ‘choice, autonomy and flexibility’, the school uniform seems somewhat anachronistic, at least on face-value. There are many deep and broad elements to this discussion, but in this piece, I’m considering it from a perspective based on my experience and observation.
The article in the Sydney Morning Herald (9 Jan) Why do we still make girls wear skirts and dresses as school uniform quoting gender research that dresses and skirts:
“restrict movement in real ways; wearers must negotiate how they sit, how they play, and how quickly they move. Skirt-wearing, consciously and unconsciously, imposes considerations of modesty and immodesty, in ways that trousers do not”.
It also goes on to talk about the negative impact of this on girls in being actively engaged in sport.
“A study conducted in one Australian primary school in 2012 found that girls did significantly less exercise over a two-week period when wearing a school dress than they did when wearing shorts.”
I don’t think that abandoning uniforms in Australia is on the horizon, some would even say that it is un-Australian to consider it, nor is cancelling dresses (or tunics, as they are called in Australia) and skirts from the list. It’s about ‘choice, autonomy and flexibility’. School uniforms are seen as important social-levellers and provide affordable options for families to dress their kids for school each day. This isn’t that ‘either/or kind’ of argument, but I will go into that a little later.
As schoolgirl both in primary and high school I was fairly ‘anti-dress’. In my younger years I loved Velvet, the 1960s outdoorsy-kinda-gal in the horsey TV show, National Velvet. In one episode I remember well, Velvet ran home from church and immediately changed out of her dress and into her riding gear. Velvet’s mother despaired that she spent more time in trousers than dresses. This was my story. Whenever I could, I would wear shorts and trousers, however my mother was intent on me being more of a ‘lady’! (There were tears over this.)
Of course, there are many schools that provide options for girls, trousers and shorts in their uniform. As students get older and desire to follow fashion trends, often the options of the school-style trouser just doesn’t appeal, so the girls just go back to the tunic/skirt and blouse. In addition, some girls will wear a jumper/sweater in summer as the button-up blouses make them feel uncomfortable. When schools only provide options that seem more 20th century in their thinking, then ‘choice, autonomy and flexibility’ are compromised.
So if a school uniform remains the Australian Way: How might we…
- Start thinking differently about the school uniform
- Create a poliform, providing number of choices
- Be a bit more on-trend with what we offer to students
- Have school uniform guidelines that are more agile and flexible
- Help parents to see that the school uniform rigidly applied does not ‘maketh the man’ nor the woman
I’m sure there are many more ‘what ifs’ in this conversation, if we put our minds to it. This isn’t a ‘uniforms or no uniforms’ argument, but trying to find some common ground. All I know was that as a school-aged person, I was much freer and able to be myself when I could choose what I wore. As an adult, I’ve worked in an environment of a uniform, and I didn’t like it. Not everybody is like me, there are some who love the idea of not thinking about what they wear. If we truly desire an education system where we are enabling a personal approach to school and life, then our decisions need to match our values and desired culture at every point.
I have come to realise, over the years, that wearing a dress is much cooler in summer, but there are some summer days when I will still wear pants or jeans as well. As an adult, I have ‘choice, autonomy and flexibility’.
Now, don’t get me started on ties!
(not expressing the views of my employer)