School Uniform

posted in: Childrenswear | 36

A few weeks ago I posted a picture of my grandson on his first day at primary school. He looked a little bewildered that day and a number of you took pity on him. Wouldn’t that ridiculous uniform get anyone down? A shirt with a collar, a tie and a blazer for a four year old? With a pair of grey, flannel look pants? Jeez, you said, what are you Brits like? People from countries where kids wear kids clothes for school find the whole phenomenon rather strange, so I thought I would share my views and experience.

Well not all Brits do this to their children, far from it. Lots of schools allow the children to dress as they wish (within reason). But the incidence of school uniform is widespread in UK schools, not just for the upper classes. Many ordinary state schools, church schools, comprehensive schools, academies and free schools stipulate a uniform for the children. And while some have a “casualised” version based on sportswear, and nearly all now have trousers as a choice for girls as well as headscarves for Muslim girls, most school uniforms are traditional and non-fashionable. Why are school uniforms tolerated and even supported by many parents and school children? And why does this tradition continue in the UK whereas it has gone in most other countries (unless they used to be British colonies, where the uniform still survives)?

Modern school boy
Modern school boy

I thought I would give you a second view of Ted in his uniform, so that you can see his discomfort was probably due to the newness of the school, rather than his collar and tie. The photographs below incidentally also show how North American traditions have mixed in with our own – pumpkins, maple syrup and American style pancakes.


The posher, private schools have a more “exclusive” uniform – slightly unusual colours, better quality materials. The state schools often have items that can be bought at high street stores, with just a blazer or even the badge being specific. The private schools often have a hat or cap whereas the state schools tend not to.  I was going to have a quiz but it is just too obvious!


But why bother at all? The positive reasons for a school uniform are;

  • A sense of identity and belonging
  • Less pressure on parents to buy the latest trainers, jackets etc
  • Less fuss in the morning as the clothing choices are almost non-existant
  • Ease of handing down to other children or selling/giving second hand
  • Increasingly non-gendered
  • Arguably it helps with “discipline” in that the rules must be obeyed
  • Easy-care fabrics that don’t need ironing
  • Less clothes needed overall as there are only two days a week wear own clothes are worn
  • Helps prepare young people for work where (effectively) we all wear a uniform
  • Behaviour outside school is moderated due to the child being dressed in the school brand

Of course on the other hand

  • Shirts and ties on kids is ridiculous (is it more ridiculous to expect grown men to wear them?)
  • Some of the styles are unsuitable for school use (eg hats, skirts (eg for energetic physical play), blazers)
  • Class differences are always obvious even in the clothes, but also in so many other ways
  • A real drag for teachers who have to police it when they should be concentrating on teaching kids
  • Suppresses individuality
  • Retards young people’s ability to make good stylistic choices about clothes

There are probably other pros and cons. My kids went to schools with uniforms (at least until age 16) and, on the whole, I like them. Surprisingly so did my kids, mainly on the grounds of the unifying factor that made differences of background less significant.The other week I was eating my picnic lunch at Alexander Palace and I saw these young women. When they are at sixth form I think it is time to let the students wear their own clothes.

Alexander Palace
Alexander Palace

What do you think?

36 Responses

  1. Kerry

    Gosh, this is a much more nuanced – and complex – subject than it may appear on the surface!

    In Australia we do have a school uniform for the primary and secondary years, with more emphasis on blazers, ties and uniform protocol (read: some very silly rules!) at the secondary school level. I object to my son having to wear a blazer to and from school (albeit no school tie) on days that are in the 30C’s – what a really stupid rule. However to be fair, children are sent home if the temperature is over 38C – now that’s a sensible rule! I only bought primary school uniforms for my two younger children when they asked for it (the older child went to primary school at a time when state schools didn’t have uniforms – that has now changed. My children all went to state secondary schools so the uniforms could look a little ratty after a while and that was okay with the school, as long as they had the required layers in evidence.

    But I have to admit the kids at private schools always look much more polished and you can certainly tell when you see groups of secondary school children in the city whether they attend a public or a private school.

    My husband and I both went to posh private schools and wore smart uniforms, mine was a particularly posh school so I had a (ridiculous) beret, a uniform coat as well as a velvet dinner jacket! At our class reunion two years ago my former room mate (it was a boarding school) wore her ENTIRE sports captain uniform including the coat – hilarious!

    Personally, I do not like school uniforms, I hate that at our children are forced into conforming at such a young age. For secondary school it makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons. However, I agree that in the senior years the students should be allowed some privileges and differentiation from their younger cohorts.

  2. Jess Page

    This brough back horror memories of my own school uniform worn in a comprehensive in York.

    Medium grey trousers the leg the same width at the top as the bottom (and yes they were measured). I remember wearing light grey and being pulled into the deputy’s office, told my mother would be called (as the very busy Editor of the regional paper you can imagine she was less than pleased) and put into ‘isolation’ for the day – sat in the assembly hall on my own while a teacher stood and watched me eat lunch alone and ferried my class work back and forth.

    Our collars would be pulled to check the top button was done up and if you did want to wear a skirt it had to be at the mid point between knee and ankle (and oh yes we were measured).

    No hair braids, no long hair for boys, no shaved heads, no jewellery, no make up, tucked in shirts, no black bras under shirts, no fitted shirts, shorts not tracksuit bottoms for PE… the list was endless.

    It made us all utterly miserable and I became totally rebellious and for many years after school wore the most outrageous clothes, the more unique and shocking the better!

    i still shudder at school uniform memories!

  3. Polly

    My children wore school uniform to both primary and secondary school (in Australia) and on the whole I think it is a good idea. Outside school they can still dress as they please and it certainly makes getting ready in the morning a lot easier. Although the initial outlay is expensive , uniforms are generally good quality and last well.The novelty of a “free dress” day my daughter had once a week during her middle secondary years soon wore off and she found it easier to wear her uniform.
    As long as school uniform rules aren’t too archaic, I think uniforms are easier for everyone.

  4. christine

    I hated my uniform utterly and felt, rightly, that the suppression of any attractiveness in teenagers was also the aim. Reminded by those appalling uniforms on the 6th form girls. Why do that to growing girls and boys?
    My Dutch partner and step dad to my two children also protested about their uniform. (not to them of course) He could not see any of the arguments and felt it reflected a militaristic approach to education and discipline. I still take the view that it is about suppression of individuality, growing sexuality and about control.
    In Northern Ireland the uniform would not only display your school but also your faith. And woe betide a child who ventured out of their ‘ghetto’ in their school uniform. A specific issue perhaps but really another example of how we like to make tribes within our society.

  5. ChaCha

    Being from one of the colonies, both myself, my husband and our kids have experienced, and survived, the uniform (tie and all)! It simply becomes what you do. Interestingly, our kids have commented that on free dress day they feel like it is much harder to focus on school work as being in casual clothes is like having a day off. Our daughter says that putting on her uniform feels like her brain automatically shifts to a different gear; a “get serious, you’ve got work to do” gear.

  6. Sam

    I wore school uniform from the age of 9 (middle school) until 16 (senior school). I stayed on to 6th form at the same senior school, but then we were allowed to wear our own clothes, admittedly with quite strict rules. Boys had to wear suits and ties, girls had to be smartly dressed, no very short skirts or revealing tops etc. It was quite funny that most of the boys ended up dressed almost identically, it was the height of the 1980’s and the favourite outfit for boys was a pale grey suit with white shirt and red tie. Girls of course had a little more freedom.

    I didn’t mind wearing school uniform – ours was fairly relaxed, at least for girls. At middle school no one had to wear blazers, and at senior school while boys had to wear blazers and ties, they were optional for girls. Only about 2 girls in my year did opt to wear them. However, I still can’t wear red and grey together (middle school uniform) or navy bottoms with a white blouse (senior school uniform).

  7. Ruth

    I’m a uniform supporter when it’s sensible and affordable. My children are at school in North Yorkshire. At their state schools primary age children wore grey trousers or shorts, a polo top and school sweatshirt. At secondary school it’s black trousers, shirt, tie and jumper. In sixth form boys and girls wear “business appropriate attire” which means girls wear anything they want and boys wear trousers, shirts and ties.
    My support is based on the fact that uniform does make things equal. The area has a high proportion of affluent parents who will buy their children designer clothes, and that becomes a status symbol, and partly determines entry into the “popular” group of children. This isn’t an issue until 6th form, when my son did say he would rather spend his Saturday job money on music and concerts rather than saving for designer clothes.

  8. Lesley

    I have a lot of experience in this area! Uniforms in Australian pricvate schools!
    My kids have always gone to ‘posh private schools’! I attended the world’s least posh public school but at least our uniform was compulsory tartan which was excellent during the punk years – yay tartan!
    My kids reckon the uniform is a social class leveller. Considering they are rubbing shoulders with the hoi polio I see this as definitely a positive. Princess today donned her very short summer dress and attended one of her final exams. Its a no-brainer for my kids, they chuck it on and off they go. I do however have an issue with my daughter’s school necessitating 2 blazers. The no.1 only gets worn twice a year!!!! I can imagine the ad “new no.1 blazer, only driven to church Sundays twice by young lady”!! She wears a chorister’s cassock in red with white neck frill for Sunday eucharists, the entire choir refer to themselves as tampons!
    The cons as far as I’m concerned – a uniform conveys conformity but the reality is very different…
    Pros – all kids will revolt and the subversion of the uniform is no exception. They personalise it or personalise themselves – whatever – lets move on – its just not an issue and I have never had to buy mountains of clothes for my kids.
    The reality – my kids have no issue whatsoever dressing formally. I’ve seen public school kids look terribly uncomfortable in jacket and tie but my son pops off to work in a legal office convincing in his attire. On ‘mufty day’ some of the kids attend school in very formal attire – usually dressed as their own gender stereotype, but not always. Kudos to them I say. The uniform hasn’t constrained them in the least and I couldn’t be more proud of this ‘all welcome’ generation! X

  9. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    I hate uniform on primary age kids, and it’s so often ridiculously impractical for small kids [those awful grey school trousers that rip out at the knee in 5 minutes flat!]. I was under the impression that although secondary schools can impose uniform across the board, primary schools can only ASK parents to dress their kids in uniform. In any case, although a uniform at my kids’ primary existed, it was not compulsory, and I refused to put mine in it. In fact, on special occasions, when the school would send out letters imploring parents to put their kids in uniform for the sake of, well, uniformity, I would dress mine in the brightest colour combinations I could find, just to make my point!
    The kids were not impressed lol.
    As for secondary school, I know all the arguments in favour, but as a teacher, you really do waste a hell of a lot of time nagging about tucked in shirts, properly knotted ties, correct footwear, etc etc. Gah! I agree with Christine’s Dutch partner about the militarisation aspect, I really hate that. On mufti days, the kids seemed like PEOPLE not little clones. College is so much better, even if so many of the girls have not one clue about appropriate clothes for a classroom! [And then there are all the lads waddling around with trousers at half mast, don’t even get me started!]

  10. Giorgia

    Uhm, interesting. In Italy the only regulation on dress code applies to primary students who have to wear a colour coded apron thingy (white for girls and blue/black for boys) on top of their own clothes. A ribbon is usually tied around the collar in different colours to indicate which year group they belong to. They are not fashionable and do not provide any sense of belonging as, as long you adhere to the colour coding, you can buy your apron wherever you want and they are all marginally different (belt, no belt, front or back buttons, shape of collar and so on).

    From middle school students are free to wear whatever they like, and since good sense seem to be the only defining variable I have seen some pretty dreadful styling choices in my school mates. The very interesting thing for me is that, following fashion fads, trends were very quickly and solidly established – meaning that if you didn’t adhere to the latest brand/style/colour you were easily picked out. Oddly enough, the free choice of outfit never produced true styling freedom but only a different kind of expected compliance I always found intolerable. Not that standing out, and often in the wrong way. didn’t contribute to building my character… but it did make me pro-uniforms. Surely ties and blazers look a bit off on a 4-years old who should be able to run, jump an dance without having to wrestle with stiff shoulder pads… but I’d rather have that and use clothing to build a sense of belonging and unity, than have it become an additional barrier to integration.

    This said, I was an odd child regardless and might have lived exactly the childhood life with or without uniform!

  11. Stephanie

    I come from a different perspective. As you may or may not know, school uniforms are not widespread in Canada, even though it is a former colony. This is for a few different reasons. There are certainly a few private schools where uniforms are worn, and some children I knew growing up wore them to attend Catholic school. In general though, kids don’t wear uniforms at any level of school and the public school system is widely attended. When I moved to Australia in my twenties I was actually shocked to discover the school uniform system there.

    I can’t say what school life in Canada is like these days, but in my day at least I don’t remember what I wore ever being a big deal until I reached high school. My mother dressed me in what she liked, including a lot of boys’ clothes and colourful corduroy pants, handmade sweaters. In the final couple of years of high school I remember it being more of an issue as, as Giorgia says, a “cool” style was defined by the group and if you didn’t meet that expectation you might be teased. I attended a school in a wealthy area though so that might have had something to with it (not sure). That said, I never wore “cool” clothes, and was teased, but it never bothered me for some reason. I just did what I did. I always thought the kids who made fun of others for their individuality were rather stupid.

    PS Such beautiful children. I love the pancake breakfast! I’ve recently introduced Gianni to pancakes with local maple syrup. He takes maple syrup home to Italy each time he leaves. He likes to put a spoonful on his yogurt, too.

  12. Martina

    School uniforms are common in Catholic schools in the US..I loved mine and was sad when we moved to the suburbs and I couldn’t wear it anymore. I also see kids who go to charter schools (a kind of public/private hybrid) wear them quite often, but it’s usually khaki pants, a polo shirt and a sweatshirt or sweater. Lands End does a huge business providing these outfits. I think they make them wear a specific brand of inexpensive sneakers so they can’t compete with shoes. I actually think a comfortable, practical uniform is a good idea…I have four sisters and the elimination of fights over borrowed clothes would have been worth the loss of individuality!

    I saw school kids in Tokyo in uniforms…some really cute hats, especially. They looked neat and tidy and ready to learn.

  13. SewRuthie

    I quite liked school uniform. I was at a state primary school in the 70s and private secondary school in the 80s. Primary had no uniform, I wore mum-made things mostly from that indestructible polyester that existed then, and we did PE in our undies! which would not be allowed now.
    Secondary school uniform was quite specific and being private more specific than absolutely necessary. ie a marroon jumper with a thin black line in the ribbing at the neck, meaning you couldn’t just buy a generic marroon jumper. I had home knitted jumpers (sweaters) which followed the rules, but were clearly not from the expensive uniform shop, second hand blazer and homemade skirt plus shirts bought off the market. Sometimes it made me feel a little bit second class but it wasn’t a huge deal. I got up early and had long days and it was good to not have to think about what to wear.

  14. Sweatyknitter

    I had to chuckle. My daughter attended a single year in Catholic school when she was 6. She wore, as did all the girls, a red, blue and white plaid one-piece jumper (dress) with a matching blue sweater. Before she started public school I commented that because her uniforms were made out of such sturdy material, she could continue to wear them to her new school. Later that day I found her uniforms in the bottom of our trash bin, cut to ribbons

  15. Jenny

    What a thought provoking subject. I have ambivalent feelings about uniforms; the associations with militarism, old-fashioned male ideas of what constitutes “smart”, ridiculous rules and the stifling of individualism. How I shudder at the word “discipline” in relation to children. Ties on children? I just don’t see the point. And yet my own very strict uniform at a girl’s grammar school in the 1960s was a great leveller. There were some very wealthy pupils, and my sister and I and most of our friends had free places. Everything was prescribed, even our underwear and indoor and outdoor shoes. Once our mum managed to find some much cheaper jumpers from her catalogue instead of the regulation supplier but they were the wrong shade of green and we were sent home to change. We did not tell Mum as we knew she could not afford any more and just went without jumpers while inside school for a whole winter. The ethos was that we were all proud of our school and therefore proud to wear the uniform, and on the whole we were. We had, after all, all won places by merit. It was an excellent school. Those of us from less wealthy backgrounds felt as though we could achieve just as much as those from homes where university and professional careers were commonplace. A couple of memories stand out. A girl in our class was caught stealing. Her punishment? She was not allowed to wear her uniform for a week! She certainly stood out at assembly. Oh how I cringe at the humiliation, poor girl. A friend of ours was told off by the conductress on the bus for misbehaving and at assembly that morning the headmistress mentioned the incident – a passenger on the bus had phoned the school. We were all made to feel suitably ashamed that someone could have let the school down.

    There were several versions of the uniform – oh how we longed to wear the pleated skirts of the sixth form and the shirt waisted dresses in summer, instead of the square necked tunics of the first three forms and a-line skirts of the fourth and fifth. They brought a sense of maturity and responsibility. We did manage to personalise them by turning the waistbands over and over (when far enough away from the school) to make them into minis. The part I hated most though was the hat, a ridiculous skull-cap affair with a bright yellow tassel. Whoever inflicted that on teenage girls should be suitably punished.

    My experience with my granddaughters varies. Two of them, aged 12 and 16, may as well not have a uniform. It is any grey or black trousers or skirt so long as they’re not too narrow/short, any white shirt with a school tie, black shoes and a school sweatshirt with the badge on. There’s such a variation and some of the boys in particular manage to look exceedingly scruffy. Both girls wear makeup. The school has tried banning it but it was a waste of time. But they’re happy at school and seem to be doing well. My son and daughter were at the same school when there was no enforced uniform at all except a general blue/grey/black, and it seems to have made no difference to the education they received. The youngest granddaughter however goes to a private school where the uniform is very traditional, unique and strictly enforced, even for the four year olds. They look so cute. It does not seem to stifle them in any way, more make them part of the whole. Like my old school, they have very high standards.

    However, I still think that these high standards can come from a nurturing atmosphere, good teaching and strong leadership, even without a uniform.

  16. Su

    School uniforms certainly make life easier for parents and maybe for the kids. My niece and nephew are in the catholic school system and they have only worn uniforms in high school. I’m happy I never had to wear a school uniform as I went to the public school system.

    I wore uniforms for my work for 14 years and a great deal of the excitement of getting a promotion was being able to ditch the uniform of cotton polyester ” pajamas” , even though I made most of my uniforms and got complements on them (interestingly, mostly from my patients!)

  17. Vicki

    Another Australian here. I wore uniforms as did my daughters. No body likes them but at least they are easy. Now at work (I work in a professional office) we get to wear casual once a month and I hate it – what am I going to wear? Work clothes – uniform of suit etc is easy. I remember when my daughters had a free dress day there was much anxiety about what to wear, fashion, I wore that last time, blah, blah. Perhaps if you had free dress everyday then that wouldn’t be an issue??

  18. ceci

    No school uniforms in the very good public school system where I live (east coast US) and shockingly sexualized clothes on the girls particularly. I remember maybe 15 years ago the high school principal sent home a note saying “If you are uncomfortable seeing what your daughter is wearing to school, imagine how I feel”. Its probably worse now……Boys were just sloppy. So uniforms might have been better but would I suspect have been unpopular with kids!


  19. Gail

    My daughters attended an elite private school in Sydney. The winter uniform was unspeakable – a khaki pinafore, with khaki knee-socks, brown lace up shoes, standard white shirt, blue tie topped with khaki blazer. No girl from that school has ever joined the military.
    Having said that, I still prefer a uniform with strict rules about how to wear it. Tends to iron out the inequalities.

  20. pia

    A lot of East Asian countries also have school uniforms still. I had them when I was a wee lass in my birth country, though not after we emigrated to the US. Ours certainly weren’t so stuffy. I don’t think they’re a bad thing unless schools & shops collude to charge inflated prices.

    What strikes me though is how in the UK it’s not only the school kids who dress so formally, but male teachers in suits. I never had a teacher who dressed like he’d like to be a banker or consultant! Maybe UK can dial down the stuffiness, especially if all the bankers are going to leave after Brexit! 😉

  21. Cynthia

    My kids had school uniforms, parochial school, as well as my grandchildren. Here in the states, it varies from school to school. The younger kids wear navy pants and a light blue polo shirt, in high school it was a white or light blue button down and tie for the boys and navy plaid skirt with shirt for the girls, or navy pants and shirt for the girls. Definitely more relaxed, but uniform regardless. I really preferred it, first it seems there is the dress code for a private school and our public schools seem to wear what they want. I also liked that all were equal, no emphasis on more expensive clothing as opposed to those that did not have, everyone looked the same and held to the same standards. It’s also easier for school clothes shopping in the fall too.

  22. BMGM

    My daughter attended a private school w/ uniforms for 2 years. The kids got free dress one day a week.

    While uniforms .may. minimize class differences within the classroom, they highlight class differences outside of them. A uniform flags a family as being able to afford private school, which is not cheap in coastal California. They cost 2-10 times as much as parochial schools. So, a child wearing a school uniform from an ‘independent’ (not parochial) school, is a status marker.

    The free dress day is a mine field in itself.

    The mothers’ dress during school dropoff and pickup is another mine field. And the cars…

    When she asked why we only had one house (and not a second one in Hawaii or Palm Springs or the mountains) like the other kids, we knew it was time to pull her out and send her to public school.

  23. Annie

    We had plaid pleated skirts that had to cover our knees. I just had a good laugh when I was reading all this. Most of us would roll those skirts at the waistband in order to shorten them, but we had to wait until we were out of sight of the school.

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