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Opinion: Forget the school uniform - it's outdated and out of touch with the real world

Business owner Louisa Meehan says the arguments in favour of school uniforms don’t stack up anymore.

Louisa Meehan

THE ISSUE OF school uniforms has hit the headlines for various reasons again this week. As pupils and families prepare for the return to the classrooms next Monday, many will be wondering if their children will even fit back into the uniforms, especially after so long in Covid lockdown.

Those discussions have prompted me to ask one question – why do we have uniforms at all in Irish schools these days?

I question the rationale behind putting kids into designated outfits to make them look like everyone else and then educating them to think critically and encouraging them to stand out from the crowd.

Irish schools are preparing the next generation to face the world, whatever that will look like in the years to come. It’s time we asked ourselves are children’s uniforms part of that world?

As I see it, there are four perennial arguments supporting the policy of a school uniform:

Convenience - knowing that kids can grab whatever they wore yesterday and hope the ink stains don’t show too much does make life a little easier at 7 am. But would it really take much longer to pull together an alternative?

Kids might enjoy wearing a jumper that makes them happy. This is especially important for kids who have sensory processing issues and may find a uniform distracting. They might enjoy being able to choose on some days.

Cost-efficiency – I’m not convinced of this. Every July/August/September we’re bombarded with advertising for school clothes and school shoes. Never mind the clothes you have at home – buy these, you need them! Buy five of them! At the moment, of course, in Covid restrictions, buying any kind of uniform staple is nigh impossible.

Turn to the Internet, radio, TV, read print media and you see controversies over which schools will accept a cut-price jumper with a crest stitched on, and which won’t. Parents are under so much pressure at the moment, avoiding these scenarios would surely be a relief.

Being identified as ‘belonging’ to a particular school – we all hope schools will treat our children and teenagers in a way which makes them proud to have attended there. Your school(s) and the experiences you have there is part of your identity. However, I don’t believe schools are entitled to jurisdiction over a child’s behaviour when they’re not on the premises.

Concerns have been raised over the reputation of the school when young people are out and about in their free time but happen not to have changed their clothes after school. If a school wants to create the idea of a community, should this not be through establishing a strong culture of positive behaviour rather than relying on clothing?

If you want to have some common branding why not distribute a particular schoolbag with a logo or crest students can use. That would save parents some money too.

If a school has a bullying problem, a uniform isn’t going to crack it. In my opinion, if someone is looking to pick on someone, the fact they’re wearing the same clothes is no protection.

Perhaps putting them in the same clothes was a reasonable approach at one stage, but changing the victims’ behaviour is not how we fix problems these days. Teachers, parents and the students have to work together on attitudes to deal with bullying. The focus must be on why the bully is choosing to behave in this way, not what the victim is supposed to have done wrong that provoked them.

The tide against

A growing number of schools in Ireland don’t have a uniform. For whatever reason, their patrons or management have decided it’s not for them. I’d love to know what feedback they get from parents and students around clothes, particularly when it comes to second-level schools.

But we can see from their example that anarchy is not unleashed once the binds of a uniform policy are broken. Children should be warm or cool enough and comfortable in the conditions of the day and the classroom, especially given the current additional ventilation requirements.

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As a business owner and the former president of Network Ireland, I understand the importance of a dress code especially when it’s necessary for either a branding (customer-facing role) or for protective clothing.

Uniform or not, dressing appropriately for the workplace is essential to ensure that the business is well represented in their industry. We are increasingly seeing more neutral styles of uniform.

Looking at areas of safety, we have seen in industries like the airline industry where women and men now dress similarly and in a way that allows for ease of movement whilst still representing the brand effectively.

Covid-19 has seen a shift in the medical field where now all doctors, including your local GP are typically in scrubs – again this is an example of when it is gender-neutral and a ‘uniform’ for the purpose of safety – in most situations the person themselves can decide on the colour of their scrubs so self-expression is still allowed.

In customer-facing roles, a uniform can be essential to ensure that customers can identify staff members. We have all been in a public space like a shop and wondered who to approach with a question – if there is a uniform this can take away the uncertainty and make it much easier for the customer.

As our attitudes to young people’s development change and we put an increasing amount of emphasis on allowing them to grow and evolve on their own path, I believe their arrival into an employment environment is time enough to be dressing like their colleagues – and even then it should be because it is necessary and not just as an arbitrary rule for control purposes.

Louisa Meehan runs her own HR business, Woodview HRM. She is also the former president of Network Ireland.

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Louisa Meehan

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