Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Why our young girls should all wear school uniforms

I suppose like most schoolgirls I hated my school uniform, and ever since those days many moons ago I have disdained to wear maroon. There is something to be said for having a horrible colour for a school uniform because it leaves all the pretty colours free for the rest of your life. Cat-sick yellow, bluebottle-green, mouldy grey are all suitable hues never to have to don again.

Yet while hating your school uniform is — I imagine — a common experience, school uniforms are, in themselves, a good thing.

Some parents are to be balloted about what their offspring are to wear to school, up to the age of 18, and while there may be a case for some laxity after 17, there is a strong case for retaining the uniform habit during most of the teen years. Especially for girls. That may sound discriminatory, but it accords with some basic biological facts.

We are increasingly aware of the pressures foisted on teenage girls today. The bullying issue has been highlighted often enough — young girls have felt driven to suicide by the harassing texts and spiteful remarks they have received.

But it's not just the bullying, it's the propaganda to grow up too fast, to look perfect and flawlessly groomed at all times.

There was a dreadful case in Devon last month when a 14-year-old girl called Izzy Dix hanged herself in her bedroom. But before committing this terrible deed, she painted her fingernails so that she would die with a flawless manicure.

This youngster had been taunted for being too polite, for being a ‘boffin’ (serious about her studies), for having an Australian accent — you're not allowed to be different — and for not partaking in the ghastly game ‘Body Part for Body Part’, which urges members of a social network to upload naked photos of themselves.

In order to fit in, she went to some trouble to be nicely groomed — mascara'd eyelashes, long blonde hair in impeccable condition — as is often the way with teenage schoolgirls nowadays.

But schoolgirls shouldn't necessarily look like models, or certainly shouldn't have to think they ought to look like models.

There is a lot to be said for schoolgirls looking like lumpy great Amazons who would terrify you on the hockey pitch, dressed in baggy and unflattering school uniforms.

The adolescent years can be awfully confusing, and young people have to be given time to grow up; to find themselves and to be sheltered from the chill winds of body-image competition. Ideals of beauty and perfection have always existed, but global culture today is relentlessly image-based. And it can be cruelly humiliating for a young person to feel they are inadequate to the templates that are held before them through every screen they open.

The school uniform at least muffles this impact for a few years; if every kid has to sport this horrible get-up, this makes for something like a democracy of appearance.

Uniforms can also diminish snobbish class differences. A poor kid looks the same as a rich kid in a school uniform.

There are studies which have found that wearing school uniforms slows down the sexualisation of young people — another area that can be frightening and threatening to the vulnerable young.

Girls who wear school uniforms tend to lose their virginity later — that is, not at 13 years of age, which is not unknown in some parts. School uniforms also mean fewer young teenage pregnancies. Girls who wear school uniforms tend also to get better academic grades.

Uniforms can also help with behaviour problems. We were often warned that we would “let down the school” if we were caught misbehaving while wearing our uniform — we also knew we could be identified more easily while in one.

Parents do object to the cost of buying school uniforms, and that could be reduced by introducing more competition to the supply chain. When a uniform has to be purchased from a particular store, it's going to be more expensive, because it's a monopoly.

Most secondary schools here still seem to like the school uniform, and there are good reasons to keep to it — though it has been suggested that the pupils themselves should be consulted on the issue, the better to “empower” children and promote further democracy.

But should children be “empowered” before they can exercise responsibilities, or understand that actions and choices have consequences?

We have become much more aware in recent decades that children and young people need protection as they develop; they need families and guardians who will defend their welfare. Given the opportunity, we would all have chucked away our uniforms at the age of 14 or 15 — the pinnacle years of rebellion.

But hating the colour maroon is a small price to pay for a system which sensibly keeps schoolkids' focus on learning within a framework of discipline, rather than on preparing for a constant beauty parade.

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