Saturday, March 05, 2005

An Unfocused Ramble About School Uniform

The recent court ruling on Shabina Begum's right to wear the Jilbab at school has caused a bit of stir in the national media and, also, in the political blogging world. I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the Begum case, here, because Meaders and Lenin have already covered the issue in a great deal of depth and much better than I could. For what it's worth, I agree with those two bloggers that the court decision was right and that socialists should support the right of Muslim women (and, indeed, people from other religious faiths) to choose whether or not to wear religious garments. There is an agressively secularist section of the Left which tends to slide into authoritarian thinking on this issue - a social authoritarianism which seems completely at odds with fundamental socialist principles.

The debate over the ruling, however, got me thinking about an issue (peripheral to the Begum case) which has bothered me for quite some time - whether or not socialists should support school uniform policies in schools at all. OK, this is hardly a major issue, but neither is it a completely insignificant one. For those of you who don't know, I was (briefly) a teacher in a comprehensive school a few years ago and I still (occasionally) work as a supply teacher* when I'm desperate for cash. I wasn't a particularly disciplinarian teacher and I always hated having to enforce the my school's unform policy. I remember many other teachers being incredibly strict about their students having their shirts tucked in, their top shirt button done up and their ties pulled tight - I could never understand it. I think my inability to get worked up about infringements of uniform policy was one of the (many) reasons that the school principal loathed me - I was was once hauled up in front of the principal, told off like I was a naughty Year 7, and threatened with dismissal. God I hated that woman.

Anyway, I digress. The main point so far, is that I just don't think that it is particularly important that children should dress with impeccable neatness and formality. I would be quite happy if students did not have to wear any kind of uniform at all. Having said that, I can see that there is an egalitarian argument to be made in favour of uniform. Many left-wing teachers are in favour of uniform because they feel that children may come under intense pressure from their peers to wear expensive designer clothes and trainers etc if no uniform policy exists at school and that this is a particular problem for kids from poorer backgrounds. In fact, I had an argument with a socialist friend about this the other day (after watching a news report about the Begum case). My friend argued that all state schools should have a uniform policy, rehearsing the argument I've just outlined above. He said that he was bullied at school for not wearing the 'right' trainers and for not wearing brand name clothes and said that, having experienced this, he was convinced that socialists should support uniform policies as a bulwark against the encroachment of commodification and competitive, materialistic pressures into childrens' lives.

He has a very powerful point, I think. However, there are counter-arguments to be made from a socialist point of view. It should be remembered that schools are not 'neutral', non-capitalist institutions. The education system is, of course, largely (though not wholly) geared towards the reproduction of labour power for capitalist exploitation. Capitalism requires obedient, docile workers, socialised into accepting, without question, relations of domination and subordination, hierarchy and so on. Uniform policies seem to me an essential part of this process - they help to turn children within school into an undifferentiated mass of (formally free and equal?) passive 'pupils' who are taught, instructed or trained by their adult superiors. I'm not arguing that discipline isn't necessary in school (God knows I've been at the receiving end of some pretty bad behaviour in my time and it isn't pleasant** - and remember that stress levels are particularly high amongst teachers, largely because of the continual morale sapping grind of trench warfare type conflict in the class room). I do argue however, that many (most?) of the discipline problems experienced by long suffering teachers in the class room stem from the capitalist context in which this education takes place. It seems to me highly unlikely that in a socialist society, children would be forced to wear uniform and treated like passive, subordinate objects to be instructed by their elders and betters.

What about the egalitarian argument in favour of uniform? Well, as I've pointed out, it is quite a powerful argument - however, I don't find it convincing. Of course many children are under incredible pressure to wear the 'right' things and this can put a terrible strain on those kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to buy them designer clothing. The thing is, though, that in my experience, school uniform policy does not eradicate these pressures for children in school time. You can still buy more or less expensive black or grey trousers, you can still wear designer shoes or even dark trainers and keep within the dress code. You can still carry your books in designer sports bags and wear expensive football boots during games lessons etc etc. Consumerist pressures still encroach on school life when a unform policy in is place.

* As an aside, I taught for a couple of weeks in a predominantly Muslim school in Bradford about a year ago now. Interestingly, a lot of the girls wore designer Calvin Klein hijabs! They were dark blue with discreet little CK logos. Capitalism gets everywhere huh. I wonder if they do CK skull caps or crucifixes - I wouldn't be surprised. How long before FCUK do vicars' cassocks?

** One of my students let off a firework under his desk in the middle of a lesson. The same student jumped out of a window some time later (luckily I taught in ground floor classroom!) I remember thinking, 'I know Julius Caesar is for the most part a rather dull play, but it's not that boring you little bastard'.

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