Why is school uniform still successful in 2019?

School uniform is an issue that has been debated for decades, if not centuries. Natalie Trice has been looking at the positive impact school uniform can have on students and schools, and why this tradition is still popular today

We are living in a fast-moving, pressurised world and while wearing a uniform might seem out of touch with modern day living, April Cowen, Marketing Communications Coordinator at Stevensons, reports that the demand and success of school uniform has never been higher.

While caps and blazers might not make Instagram-worthy images, it does give students a sense of belonging, and is at the heart of an academic environment.

Caroline Bunting, Managing Director at Perry Uniform, believes: “Uniform provides a sense of equality for students; it keeps the focus on learning as opposed to appearance; uniform creates a sense of belonging thus enhancing the community aspect of school life. Whilst these arguments are true and a solid foundation for the positive impact of school uniform, they are not new or groundbreaking.”

For Marlene Fleming, Deputy Head at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, uniform is a great way of putting everybody on the same footing, and she said: “When the new pupils arrive, the first thing they do when they come into their boarding house is to put on their uniform. Initially it can look strange to them, but it’s never a problem once a pupil is here.”

David Burgess, Chair of the Schoolwear Association, said: “In schools, uniform creates a sense of pride, encourages students to behave, improves concentration and alleviates social pressures from their peers. This makes the job of the teacher a lot easier, and removes some problems that may arise in the case of non-uniform. Wearing a uniform sets a boundary, it prepares pupils for school. Once a pupil has put on their uniform, they are then aware they are in a ‘working environment’ and a boundary is created between home life and work life.”

It is this social pressure that makes the tradition of uniform even more paramount in today’s fashion-driven, perfection society. Many students are naturally keen to fit in with their contemporaries and be accepted, and if everyone is wearing the same clothes, this is more likely to happen.

Sarah Evans, Headteacher at Weston Green School in Thames Ditton, adds to this by saying: “A uniform provides identity and a sense of belonging while reducing pressures on children to conform to social and media-driven expectations of fashion.”

One Year 6 pupil at Edenhurst Prep School in Newcastle, Staffordshire, confirmed this by saying: “Uniform stops any questions about what you have to wear.”

High in demand

School uniform lets children be seen as equals in a world where competitive ‘having’ is on the rise

These sentiments were very much echoed in research by The Schoolwear Association and researchers from Oxford Brookes University, in 2017, when secondary school students aged 13–17 talked about what wearing a school uniform meant to them.

David Burgess outlines some of the findings: “School uniform still remains popular in 2019, there will be critics that disagree, but our research, experience and close work with retailers and schools shows that there is still a clear demand from parents, teachers and children. In a time when pressures on young people are more intense (and visible) than ever before, school uniform offers them a respite from some of the stress. Looking forward in an age when young people have a lot to contend with in their education years, and increasingly find themselves in a highly competitive situation, having one less issue to worry about can only be a good thing.”

Tim James, Co-founder of Schoolblazer, said the sense of belonging that uniform delivers is crucial: “Now, more than ever, children require uniform to act as an equaliser amongst their peers, something to foster a sense of belonging and to avoid children having to be faced with the damaging focus on what someone looks like and wears, as opposed to their mind, morals and talents, when in school.”

Alex Mitchell, Headteacher of Holmwood House Prep School in Colchester, added: “School uniform lets children be seen as equals in a world where competitive ‘having’ is on the rise. Uniform is a social leveller and in best case scenarios is something that helps bind a community together through a shared sense of pride. On non-uniform days, it can be less easy to ‘see the child’ beyond the array of colourful decoration they may have chosen to wear. A uniform enables teachers to see the real child for who they are, what they bring to the class and the skills and talents they can demonstrate.”

Shelley Kelly, a personal stylist, puts all of this into context, saying: “Uniform acts as a leveller and removes one element of competition from the already overcrowded thoughts of youngsters. It makes it much easier for individuals to explore the landscape they are in if they already feel, by appearance, that they fit in. For schools who have a uniform policy, this becomes a shared value that it doesn’t really matter what we look like or what you’re wearing, the gains are to be made in what we do, how hard we try and how we perform.”

School identity

As a uniform supplier, we see it as our responsibility to notice the long-lasting trends and incorporate them to create school uniforms that children and young adults want to wear

As well as alleviating peer group pressure and bullying, uniforms also come into play as a vital part of a school’s brand and the message it is sending out. Just think about how many times you have asked pupils to wear the correct, clean uniform on a school trip, to be extra smart on open days and double-checked sports kit for an away match, because that is often the first impression that the local, and wider community, will get of your school.

Tim James commented on this topic:
“A uniform is a clear definition of a school’s brand and ethos. Schools typically want to reflect the type of ‘school’ they are by the uniform their pupils wear, for example, a city school goes for pinstripe and a country school chooses tweed, while other schools want tailored, well-made suits. All of this can help to build and reinforce a brand, and uniforms are styled exclusively for each school.”

Caroline Bunting further commented: “Fashions are always changing which means that uniform needs to evolve, but it has to offer a clear, shared identity, one that reflects heritage and strengthens a brand because it is identifiable and distinctive.”

While the brand is, of course, important, most schools, parents and pupils would agree that while the uniform needs to look smart, it is imperative that it fits properly, feels comfortable and to a degree, is flattering. Just 10 years ago, there was one option for boys and another for girls, but today the landscape is changing. Both sexes can now wear trousers, children develop earlier, weights and proportions are changing, sexuality is a more open topic of conversation, and gender needs to be considered in a more sensitive way.

April Cowen said: “The Stevensons ethos is that a uniform has to be a great fit and fit for purpose. Taking advantage of the latest fabric technology and designs, Stevensons supports new and existing partner schools with a uniform that can be flexible for the needs of its students and demands of the school. Whilst it is important to change with the times, it can be unsettling for stakeholders, and therefore future-proofing a uniform to be relevant in years to come is mutually beneficial for all.”

As Tim James added: “You cannot underestimate the positive impact of wearing uniform that is current, smart, well-fitting and is functional too. From ‘girls fit’ to the increasing demand for ‘gender neutral’ uniforms, up-to-date fabrics and cuts, designs that are current and reflect trends, we have to be aware of everything. Our designers have a fashion design background, so uniforms are not ‘age old’ and innovation underpins everything we do.”

Caroline Bunting added: “As a uniform supplier, we see it as our responsibility to notice the long-lasting trends and incorporate them to create school uniforms that children and young adults want to wear. For example, we were one of the first school uniform suppliers to innovate the traditional sixth form suit to be a more flattering, slim-fit shape for both girls and boys by embroidering crests onto the lapels as opposed to the traditional patch pocket many see as synonymous with school uniforms. These shifts to modern uniforms are key in helping uniform to be just as successful today as it has been in the past.”

What we have seen is that uniform is still successful today because it creates a sense of pride, contributes to a school’s core values and is integral to its branding. Just as importantly, it brings pupils together on a level playing field at a time when the digital world is trying so hard to pull them apart.

Alex Mitchell summarised: “In a fast-moving world where much is ephemeral and a sense of entitlement is rife, some things speak of tradition and old-fashioned values. A well-designed and widely respected school uniform can embody those values and send a message that some things are worth keeping.

The British independent education system is widely regarded across the globe, partly because it works hard to maintain the best of traditional schooling while being innovative and forward thinking.”