The science of school uniform

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Back in the mid 1990s, the U.K. was in the grip of a crisis caused by the emergence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). This was a fatal brain condition affecting cattle that became colloquially known as ‘mad cow disease’. People were concerned because it seemed as if cows had acquired the illness by eating sources of protein containing the remains of sheep that suffered from a similar disease, scrapie. If cows eating the remains of sheep could catch it then then could humans eating beef also be at risk?

I remember the reassurances at the time. We were repeatedly told that there was no evidence of a risk to humans. That was true. At that time there really was no evidence. That evidence came later with the outbreak of a related condition in people.

BSE is the best example that comes to mind to demonstrate that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is important when considering the matter of the overreach of science.

School uniform

So what has this to do with school uniform? If I set up a school in Britain or Australia then I would probably wish to have a uniform. I think it acts as a social leveler; children are less concerned about their clothes. It can also be a blessing to parents who only have to buy two or three versions of something and schools can choose to make these relatively cheap. Parents can also avoid a daily confrontation about what their children wear.

However, I recognise that this is no panacea. Some kids will still buy expensive shoes or push the boundaries of what is acceptable. Yet I’d rather a ritualistic confrontation centred on uniform than this same rebellious need breaking out in many and various other forms. It’s almost like the agreed theatre in which to do battle, like a football pitch or a chess board.

Yet I would never claim that there is evidence to support school uniforms. The Education Endowment Foundation have this about right in their summary. There is no evidence to say uniforms work and there really couldn’t be. Short of running a massive, unfeasible experiment, all we can do is look for correlations and schools rarely move from having no uniform one day to having a uniform the next day while changing nothing else.

And uniform is a few steps removed from achievement or behaviour. In order to affect either, a lot of other culturally specific chains of cause and effect would have to kick in. I once visited a grammar school in Germany and was shocked to see tables totally covered in graffiti. My hosts were unfazed: Teachers taught the lesson and it was entirely up to the students whether they paid any attention or not. The idea of adding a school uniform to this context and expecting it to have any effect is clearly absurd.

Overreach

There is no evidence that school uniforms affect behaviour or achievement but that does not mean that there is evidence that they do not. That would be overreach. If someone suggested that a lack of scientific evidence disproves the case for uniforms then this would be an accurate example of a much misused word; ‘scientism’. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is not scientism to draw on scientific evidence where such evidence exists. It is scientism to imply a scientific basis for a conclusion that cannot be supported by science.

Differentiation is a similar issue to school uniforms in that it is big, amorphous and difficult to test. And yet differentiation is often promoted in a way that resembles scientism. It is highlighted as best practice and written into teaching standards rather than being something left to the professional judgement of teachers and schools.

Fruit picking 

I choose my positions with care. I argue that there is plenty of evidence for explicit instruction because there is. I argue for cognitive load theory because it has a pretty good set of studies behind it, even as I highlight the contentious parts. I point to the evidence amassed by three government reports when I promote systematic synthetic phonics

Yes, I often object to ideas on the basis of a lack of evidence but that is when they are being promoted as if such evidence exists or is beyond question, or if they are being imposed on teachers by a power structure. In some cases, such as implicit forms of teaching, there really should be evidence by now.

I have an agenda and it’s pretty straightforward. But I’m not silly enough to make claims I can’t support.

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4 thoughts on “The science of school uniform

  1. There was a long period in NZ when schools went away from uniforms. For several decades new schools did not have them.

    Now virtually every new school has uniforms. Schools are even introducing them where they previously did not — my daughter’s school added them in Year 12.

    So while there is no academic evidence that uniforms work in the NZ situation, there seems to be a large consensus that they help a school maintain an ethos and discipline. Given that the alternative has been tried on a large scale, the change in heart of most educators would suggest that uniforms work here.

  2. Different strokes, different folks. In a system like Germany’s (or the USA’s, for that matter) where uniforms are simply not part of the culture, it would obviously be worse than pointless to try to bring them in. But in a system like ours where uniforms have strong connotations of a healthy school ethos, plain common sense dictates that they be retained and valued – it’s hardly an issue which even calls for “evidence”, which would be almost impossible to compile accurately and would almost certainly reflect the implicit bias of the researcher anyway.

  3. God, life without uniforms! As a parent I think uniforms are vital for our sanity. I can’t imagine having children spending hours deciding what outfit to wear to school tomorrow and arguing with them over what was appropriate.

    As you point out uniforms are levellers. Perhaps the unintended consequence of non-uniform schools (I went to one) is to promote inequality, where children are judged according to their clothing and brand names etc.

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