|Photo of Four Girls Wearing School Uniform Doing Hand Signs
School uniform is clothing students wear primarily in many schools and other educational institutions. They are common in primary and secondary schools in various countries. At its basic, an example of a uniform would require button-down shirts, trousers for boys and blouses with pleated skirts for girls, with both wearing blazers and some needed to wear hats or caps. A uniform can even be as simple as requiring collared shirts, placing restrictions on colour choices and limiting what students are allowed to wear. Although often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction between dress codes and school uniforms: according to some scholars, clothing can only be considered a uniform when it “(a) serves as a group emblem, (b) certifies an institution’s legitimacy by revealing individual’s relative positions and (c) suppresses individuality.” Conversely, a dress code is much less restrictive and focuses on “promoting modesty and discouraging anti-social fashion statements”, at least according to Marian Wilde. Examples of a dress code would not allow torn clothing, logos or limiting the amount of skin that can be shown./
The excellent 2016 paper by Kate Stevenson (“A History of British School Uniform“) submitted to the University of York declares that, to her knowledge, there exists no definitive history of the school uniform.
“The first recorded use of standardized dress in education may have been in England in 1222 when the Archbishop of Canterbury mandated that students wear a robe-like outfit called the “cappa clausa.” The origin of the modern school uniform can be traced to 16th Century England, when the impoverished “charity children” attending the Christ’s Hospital boarding school wore blue cloaks reminiscent of the cassocks worn by clergy, along with yellow stockings. As of September 2014, students at Christ’s Hospital were still wearing the same uniform, and according to the school, it is the oldest school uniform still in use. When Christ’s Hospital surveyed its students in 2011, 95% voted to keep the traditional uniforms. School uniforms in the United States followed the traditional use of uniforms established in England and were generally limited to private and parochial schools. One exception was found in government-run boarding schools for Native American children, first established in the late 1800s, where the children, who had been removed from their families, were dressed in military-style uniforms.”
There is no legislation to govern school uniforms in state-funded schools in any of the three separate legal jurisdictions of England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland and generally, enforcement of school uniform policy and dress codes is for individual schools to determine. However, schools do have to comply with Equality legislation in dress policies to prevent discrimination on grounds such as age, sex, race, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation. To ensure that dress policies are fair and non-discriminatory, schools are expected to consult widely with staff, pupils, parents and governors when introducing or amending dress policies. School uniforms are required to be similar in cost for both boys and girls, to be reasonably low cost, and to tolerate religious freedoms, e.g. allowing male Sikhs to wear turbans and female Muslims to wear a headscarf.
Scottish law is not specific on the question of school uniforms: generally, the school must provide information on its policy on clothing and uniform, and the Education Authority must provide written information on its general policy on wearing school uniforms. Some Education Authorities do not insist on students wearing a uniform as a precondition to attending and participating in curricular activities.
Although school uniforms were in use long before the 16th century, here’s an outline timeline covering the time since then:
- School uniforms were first introduced on a large scale during the reign of King Henry VIII.
- In the 16th century, early uniforms were called blue coats and consisted of a blue trenchcoat jacket at the reason that the colour blue was used was that blue was the least expensive dye available.
- In the 19th century, the Elementary Education Act of 1870 made primary education available to all children in England and Wales. All schools adopted uniforms to reflect the trends of that time. Girls‘ public schools emerged during the 19th century.
- 20th century school uniforms reflected the British class system. Many private schools change their uniform to distance themselves from state schools. Around 1960, pupils began pushing against tradition – with boys unbuttoning their blazers and slackening their ties, and girls took to wearing pleated skirts and tights, a blouse and a blazer.
- The changing fashion trends of the 1970s brought the dressing down of uniforms in state schools. Shirt colours and sleeves were fashionably white.
- In the 1980s, fashion and culture greatly impacted the school uniform as students challenged conventional school wear. Girls started wearing shorter skirts. Boys wore ties, but their trousers were slimmer. Customisation of blazers and satchels was commonplace. By the 1990s, school uniforms had become more casual and comfortable. Girls were allowed to wear trousers for the first time, and trainers and casual footwear became acceptable in some schools.
- School uniforms were not widely used until the 19th century, when Eton College introduced the Eton suit in about 1820, according to fashion historian Jayne Shrimpton.
Some schools stand out: for example:
- Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex, founded in 1552 in London, took up “fatherless children and other poor children” from the parish and educated them. London citizens provided the children with clothes – notably a long blue coat – which led to the famous nickname for such institutions – “Bluecoat schools”. Even today, the uniform is worn by Christ’s Hospital pupils – the school claims it is the oldest uniform that is still in existence.
- To this day, many of the older schools have retained their traditional uniforms – from the straw hats of Harrow to the “Polly Bells” of Dame Allan’s (a private school in Fenham, in the west end of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), which was founded as a charitable foundation in 1705.
New rules to drive down the cost of school uniforms for families
As a result of new legally-binding guidance published on 19th November 2021, English schools must follow statutory guidance, which requires them to ensure that school uniforms are affordable for all. The Department for Education (DfE) cost of school uniform guidance means schools in England must ensure that school uniform costs are reasonable and that parents get the best value for money.
To support families, schools will have to make sure second-hand uniforms are available, also helping work towards achieving net zero carbon emissions. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year – encouraging families to use second-hand uniforms can reduce waste and bring down emissions from manufacturing new garments while making them cost-effective for families.
Schools were expected to have taken steps to adhere to the new guidance before parents bought uniforms for their children for the academic year beginning in September 2022. The statutory guidance sets out what schools and local authorities must do to comply with the law, which must be adhered to unless there is a very good reason not to do so. Advice for schools on developing their school uniform policy is also available.
Each school decides its uniform and must not discriminate based on sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religion or belief. Headteachers can discipline children for not wearing school uniforms. A child can be suspended or expelled if they repeatedly ignore the uniform rules.
The Pros and Cons of School Uniforms
In recent years, there has been something of a backlash against the tradition of school uniforms, with some critics arguing it is outdated and should be scrapped. In retaliation, proponents of the uniform have highlighted the various ways in which it can provide tangible benefits to the lives of students, teachers and parents. Here’s a rundown of the various pros and cons of wearing a school uniform.
|Pros and Cons of School Uniforms|
|Uniform prepares students for work: School uniforms can prepare young people for formal attire associated with the world of work.||School uniforms can be expensive: the costs of school uniforms can build up with separate summer, winter and sportswear kits. If the school has a single-supplier contract, it may also mean there aren’t any cheaper alternatives available.|
|Uniforms give students an identity: Many young people feel proud of their school when wearing their uniforms.||School uniforms might attract criminals: an article in Vogue revealed that one of the disadvantages of school uniforms in independent schools, especially from a high fee-paying school, is that they can make students vulnerable to criminals.|
|Uniforms mark something special: Uniforms provide much-needed differentiation between school and home.||School uniforms can restrict individuality: Former independent school headteacher Bernard Trafford wrote in TES that students trying to adhere to strict uniform policies could mean the restriction of their own individuality.|
|Uniforms discourage value being put on looks: Uniform allows pupils to concentrate on their school work and socialising, rather than worrying about how they look compared to their peers.||Uniforms do not mean better grades: there is no UK evidence that demonstrates that uniform improves achievement in schools, especially in the UK. In America, a study found little evidence that uniforms have a lasting impact on achievement or grade retention.|
|Uniform positively affects pupils’ behaviour: A report on attitudes to uniforms found that 90% of teachers believe that school uniforms positively affect pupils’ conduct.||Uniforms might be considered sexist: Some uniforms may strike students and parents as sexist. For example, not all girls want to wear skirts, and some may challenge being told to wear traditionally “feminine” garments.|
|School uniforms can break down class barriers between students.||School uniforms lead to increased policing: if a school has a uniform policy, it generally tries to enforce that policy by monitoring students’ clothing and punishing students for violating uniform requirements.|
School Uniform Statistics and Facts
School uniform is a big part of independent school life, often reflecting the history of a school that has spanned centuries. Here are several school uniform statistics in the UK that will help explain current trends in the market and what different people think about school uniforms.
- Stevensons, the largest independent school uniform and sportswear provider in the UK, serving over 550 schools nationwide, has made uniforms out of two million plastic bottles. School uniforms are getting more environmentally-friendly. Stevensons have started selling garments made from plastic bottles – it takes 18 bottles to make a blazer, five to make trousers, and two to make a polo shirt. David Luke, which grew out of a small company that supplied childrenswear in the North West of England, is also reducing its carbon footprint with eco-school uniforms, using a process that turns plastic bottles into clothing.
- Three-quarters of British children wear a uniform that is made under an ethical and fair-trading code of conduct: It seems that our British morals are strong, since three-quarters of British children wear ethical school uniforms supplied by the Schoolwear Association, whose members sign up to a code of conduct that includes ethical overseas manufacturing. This highlights the importance for mainstream uniform suppliers to track and monitor where their uniforms are produced and how they are made, including the conditions in factories where the school uniforms are made.
- One per cent of the population is gender variant, and uniforms are set to reflect this more: A survey of 10,000 people undertaken in 2012 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 1% of the population surveyed was gender variant (expression by an individual that doesn’t match masculine or feminine gender norms). From 1st September 2019, the Welsh government announced all schools had to offer cheaper, gender-neutral uniforms. This means when clothing items are published by the school, they will not be assigned a specific gender.
- More independent schools are starting to develop their sportswear every three years.
- Back in the 1930s, independent school uniforms were only available from one store: When Edge Grove School was established in 1935, the school’s uniform was only available for parents to purchase at Harrods (then followed by John Lewis).
- Ninety per cent of teachers believe that school uniform positively affects pupils’ behaviour: In a 2017 report called Attitudes to School Uniform by Trutex and The Diana Award, 604 children, 534 parents and 180 teachers views were surveyed. When it comes to behaviour in the classroom, the majority of teachers (9 out of 10) think uniform has a positive effect on pupils’ behaviour.
- Seven per cent of children, when asked to imagine there was no uniform, said this made them ‘very worried’: In Attitudes to School Uniform, 7% of children said they would be ‘very worried’ at having to wear their own clothes to school, but 70% of 14-year-olds want to wear their own clothes to school.
- Sixty per cent of parents believe that wearing a uniform counteracts bullying within schools: The report also showed interesting results when it comes to bullying, with 6 in 10 parents saying they think if children wear a uniform, this would counteract bullying.
- A study written by Chris Bauman and Hana Krskova and published in the International Journal of Educational Management found that students in uniforms are better listeners. A detailed ANOVA test was conducted across a cohort of schools across five different geographical regions. The study found that students in uniform are better listeners, and teacher wait time is decreased. The authors conclude that “uniforms contribute to better discipline in everyday school operations.” They highlight that “good discipline allows students to work well, and this ultimately leads to better academic performance.”[18
- From age five, almost all children in the UK wear a uniform to school. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the general policy towards uniforms, especially in state schools, has become more strict. Schools often adopt a new uniform to suggest a fresh start or convey a sense of discipline. For a busy teacher in a nursery school or early years class with 30 four and five-year-olds, many of whom have only recently mastered the art of planning a toilet trip on time, having a standard, easy to slip-on uniform is a real help to the teacher and child. It is exceptional to discover a school where none of the children wears any uniform. ACS is one such school. It has three campuses around London; in Cobham, Egham and Hillingdon, for children aged from 2 to 18 and at none of the schools, at any age, do the children wear a uniform.
Sources and Further Reading
 Source: Joseph, Nathan (1986). Uniforms and nonuniforms : communication through clothing. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313251959. At: https://www.britannica.com/story/pro-and-con-school-uniforms
 Source: Wilde, Marian. “Do Uniforms Make Schools Better”. GreatSchools.net. At: https://www.britannica.com/story/pro-and-con-school-uniforms
 Acknowledgement: Based on a chart at https://price-buckland.co.uk/blog/the-history-of-school-uniform/
 Sources/Acknowledgements: https://ie-today.co.uk/school-uniforms/, https://smartasset.com/mortgage/the-pros-and-cons-of-school-uniforms, and https://www.garmentprinting.co.uk/blog/school-uniform-pros-and-cons/