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Should American schools follow Britain's lead and embrace uniforms?


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In many ways, the streets of London and those of any given city in the United States aren’t dramatically different. Yes, cars drive in a different direction (terrifyingly – I always have to catch myself while crossing the street), and buildings are often quite a bit older. But overall, I haven’t had to deal with any crazy cultural adjustments. I like it here.

One thing that does always interest me is the uniforms on children going to school each morning. As I make my morning commute to my internship, I’m passed by children in the most elaborate outfits: boxy blazers, miniature neckties, fancy little hats that make the children look like characters out of Madeline. Off they go, on scooters, looking like tiny professionals.

I compare it to school dress codes in the US, often a source of drama but rarely as formal or as commonplace as the outfits here. According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, between 2011 and 2012, 19% of public (state) schools required students to wear uniforms. In the UK, 82% of state schools require pupils to wear one, according to a study in the UK National Archives.

How does this play out in school culture? Does the uniform really make a difference?

When considering global education rankings, maybe it does. According to a US News and World Report, the UK is ranked the third best country in education, while the US is fourth. This ranking is based on data from BAV Consulting and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other rankings do vary, but the UK continues to rank above the US. In another report, this one by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK ranks as the 20th best country for education, while the US ties with Italy for the 28th best. This survey is based on student scores in maths and sciences.

Jennifer Craik, author of the article “Uniforms Exposed: The Proliferation of Uniforms in Popular Culture as Markers of Change and Identity” says that “uniforms are a shorthand code for the ‘ideal attributes imparted by schooling – discipline, order, authority, respectability, belonging, effective performance – and these are also the attribute of adult masculinity.” Students in uniform look like students who are under control, whether or not they are.

Stephanie Northen, in an article for The Guardian, uses the example of the Anthony Gell school in Wirksworth to make the point that uniforms do not affect school culture to the extent of raising the standard of education; GCSE results there have been steadily increasing over the past few years – all while students walk to classes in sweatshirts and jeans.

In my hometown in the US, several local schools have made changes to create a more formal environment: tightening up rules on uniforms and even editing their names with titles like “international preparatory academy”. All the while, their annual ratings have stagnated.

A true study of the impact uniforms (or lack thereof) have on school culture in the US and UK would require long-term, widespread research and analysis of individual schools. This research was done, over ten years, but not focused just on uniforms – rather, it compared US public (state) schools and private schools as a whole. In determining that private schools were academically more successful, state schools adapted aspects of the private school environment, namely uniforms. But no one knows whether or not uniforms actually make private schools generally stronger academically.

For the time being, yes, one can note that UK schools are far more widespread in their use of uniforms, and that they as a whole are ranked higher than their US counterparts. A correlation may exist, but so do counterexamples. On the whole, it seems that uniforms may help maintain a sense of order, but they do not stand on their own as a necessary piece of the educational puzzle.

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