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Will we still need school uniforms after COVID-19?

Sometimes we do things in a particular way because that is how we have always done them. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about new ways of doing things, often prompting a reflection about whether the old way was the best way. Mark Potterton applies this argument to the issue of school uniforms.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about simplifying school uniforms. A religious sister responded to express her disgust: “Dr Potterton, I read everything you write and like it, I must say this is the biggest load of ‘rubbish’ you have ever written.”

The topic of school uniforms has raised many heated debates over the years and no one seems to agree. With COVID-19, several schools have abandoned uniforms in the interest of hygiene, feeling that it is more likely that ordinary clothes will be washed daily and reduce the chance of contamination.

The approach has certainly worked at Sacred heart College. Despite all the arguments against wearing everyday clothes to school, the children have been cooperative, listened in class, submitted work and treated each other with the respect they deserve (most of the time) – and the sky has not fallen!

The school uniform has its roots in a 200-year English public school tradition when it was an indicator of social standing both inside and outside school. Since the uniform’s origins in England, the idea has been taken to bizarre extremes around the world. For example, one upmarket school in Johannesburg has 80 different ties which are awarded for different achievements.

What is the purpose of the uniform?

One of the most common arguments for the use of school uniforms is that gives pupils a sense of belonging to a particular community and instills a sense of pride in their school. It also introduces equality among the student population, irrespective of their family’s economic background, thereby reducing distractions that hamper effective learning. Another argument is that uniforms are practical and are made to last, making them cheaper than several changes of individual outfits.

School uniforms give pupils a sense of belonging to a particular community and instills a sense of pride in their school.

I’m not sure I buy this argument. Acrylic jerseys and Teflon-coated blazers are uncomfortable and not very warm in winter. Uniforms are expensive and the poor quality of some uniforms means that they don’t last even one, let alone several years.

Instead uniforms become a financial burden for many parents who don’t know where they will find the money in January to make sure that their children are suitably kitted for school. In South Africa the average cost for a uniform in a middle-income school is about R11 000. Some parents do not even earn that in a month.

In addition to the basic shirts, jerseys, skirts, trousers or shorts and shoes, there is also the sports uniform. Each individual sport often has its own unique uniform. For parents on a tight budget, the costs keep adding up. For some it means choosing between school clothes or a meal on the table.

I believe that the real motive of the uniform industry is that it is a money-making operation. British research shows that the 145-year-old company, Trutex, supplies 1,000 UK schools and sells around 2.5 million garments each year. Do the maths. If you have 400 pupils at one South African school buying uniforms, you’re looking at a total of R400,000. In many cases, schools work with one supplier and parents have no choice but to purchase from that outlet, often at exorbitant prices.

There were 12.8 million children enrolled in South African primary and secondary schools in 2019. A moderate uniform costing R5,000 will generate net sales of R64 billion for school uniform suppliers.  

An expensive uniform does nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Instead money saved from expensive uniform prices could be channelled into providing adequate food or learning materials for learners in low-income households.

An expensive uniform does nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Surely, it is more important that children can go to school than putting their parents into debt. Having books and writing materials is surely more desirable than being correctly kitted out in every necessary piece of uniform.

Simplifying the uniform

I have never called for the complete abolition of uniforms. Heaven forbid – I don’t want that religious sister coming after me! What I am calling for is the simplification of uniforms, a project also espoused by our Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga. We need to do away with those expensive blazers, the tracksuits with the unique school designs and colours, and stripy socks that cost 10 times more than plain grey socks.

If schools really want a unique identity while adopting a cost-effective uniform, they can have iron-on badges that parents affix to shirts and other items of clothing. We already have some reputable chain stores selling high-quality school clothing at reasonable rates. The money saved could be used to create a fund to help poorer families to buy those essential parts of the uniform.

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, and one of them it that uniforms are not really that necessary. Our children still have a sense of identity and are proud to be at our school. Simplifying the uniform could be one positive outcome of this pandemic.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.