What are school uniforms like overseas?

Sally Jones investigates the role of school uniforms at British international schools

In most British independent schools, uniform is taken for granted, be it the bog-standard white shirt and navy blazer, the eye-catching boaters, top hats, tails, canes and morning suits favoured by Harrow and Eton, the burgundy knickerbockers and mustard jumpers of Hill House, Knightsbridge, or the historic Tudor-style garb of Christ’s Hospital. In most overseas schools, however, uniform is unheard of. Only Japan has an entirely individual schoolwear tradition, with all pupils resplendent in sailor suits, while Poland is currently debating the introduction of uniform throughout its state schools.

The major exceptions to the mufti habit, however, are the UK-influenced international schools overseas, including offshoots of great British establishments like Dulwich, Malvern and Repton, in far-flung outposts from Malaysia to Mongolia. Here the historic scholastic traditions of the Old Country are highly prized, particularly the striking school uniforms which symbolise for both expats and local parents the way this blue chip education sets its offspring apart from the competition.

Although the garments themselves are mostly made in the Far East, the supply of uniforms to major international schools around the world is a homegrown success story. Britain dominates this rapidly expanding market with top firms such as Norfolk-based Schoolwear International sourcing and supplying a huge range of clothing to hundreds of schools worldwide, from tiny orders of boaters crafted by specialist firms, to uniform staples such as shirts, blouses and blazers made in their millions by famous manufacturers like Banner and Rowlinson.

“School uniform is utterly different from fashion and fly-by-night suppliers usually get it wrong as it must be durable, well-designed and of really consistent quality,” said Graham Michelli, MD of Schoolwear International. “Take the flagship item, a blazer. This must fit well and look immaculate on Speech Day as it’s helping to set the entire tone of the school and establish its distinctive brand. But it also has to act as a goalpost at break time without coming apart at the seams – quite a tall order. I always pray that a school doesn’t come to us demanding a ‘Star Trek-type’ uniform as the tried and tested styles, solidly made in perfect materials for the local climate invariably last far better than anything gimmicky or poorly-manufactured.” 

“These days most ordering is done online and good service is vital. When you’re supplying a school somewhere remote like Mahe in the Seychelles, it’s crucial we provide exactly the right numbers and sizes of garments really promptly as it’s so expensive to send replacements,” added Graham. 

For Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS, the professionalism of the supplier is as crucial as the quality of the uniform itself.

“We visit hundreds of schools each year to assess them on a range of areas,” he explained. “A smart, carefully designed uniform reflects the atmosphere of the school and local conditions – something the outstanding suppliers understand. In Norway and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for example, daylight is at a premium so hi-vis reflective patches are built into school bags and coats. The overseas international schools all want to replicate top British uniforms but some get it wrong with certain pupils in hot Middle Eastern countries still sweltering in thick woollen blazers. A good supplier would ensure the uniform was comfortable and fit for purpose, even in extremes of climate.”

The British International School of Stavanger is the only one in Norway with a uniform. Although the freedom for Norwegian children to choose their own schoolwear is a cherished right in the rest of the country, Principal Anne Howells is convinced that both school and pupils reap huge benefits from the distinctive, high-quality outfits.  

“Norwegian children and parents often tell us the clothes they wear at school are a source of peer pressure and bullying,” she explained. “Our incidence of bullying is extremely low and never linked to wearing the latest fashion trends. Uniform also gives the student a strong sense of identity; helps us forge a collegiate atmosphere and reinforces our school’s ethos. We proudly stand out in the national schoolchildren’s parade held in all Norwegian cities on 17 May.”

No wonder growing numbers of international schools are developing the uniform habit. 

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