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Maybe we should just do away with school uniforms

Now that disputes over school uniforms have refused to die, maybe we should just do away with them. Every child – nay, every parent – should be accorded the fundamental freedom of expression. Otherwise, a uniform policy replete with a whole range of exceptions defeats the very meaning of the word itself. The word “uniform” is defined simply in the dictionary to refer to being the same. Thus, the critical purpose of school uniforms is to help students look the same, thereby downplaying their social, economic, or religious differences. However, some are strongly opposed to this very fact. Their argument is that dressing, beyond just covering our nakedness, is a means of expression. Therefore, requiring all students to wear the same clothes, or limiting them as to what they can wear, disrupts their sense of identity and curtails self-expression.

This line of argument has been severally prosecuted in various courts of law including our own. When the matter of Muslim students wearing religious attire in Church-sponsored schools came before three Court of Appeal judges in 2016, they were unanimous in their firm assertion. “Fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be contracted away in the name and at the altar of education,” the judges ruled. In what was definitely a landmark ruling on personal freedoms verses institutional requirements, the Judges averred that, “Schools cannot raise an estoppel against the Constitution. No one can.”  It was therefore the court’s strong position that in a free and democratic society, schools cannot adopt “an absurd inflexibility when it comes to enforcement of school rules to govern various aspects of life.” The import of the ruling was profound.

Interestingly, however, in an almost similar case two years earlier, High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi had dismissed a case in which a six-year-old boy sued Rusinga School for ordering him to shave off his dreadlocks. The boy’s mother took to court alleging discrimination on gender, religious, and cultural grounds. She argued that the boy’s father was Jamaican and dreadlocks were part of his culture. However, the case failed because, according to the Judge, the boy did not convince the court that his culture and religious rights had been violated.

Justice Mumbi’s ruling compared quite favourably with the Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board lawsuit of 2000 in a Louisiana district court. The judge ruled in favour of the school board, arguing that he could not see how the students’ rights of expression were being violated by the school board’s uniform policy. Upon appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court also ruled in favour of the school board basing their argument on an insightful four-step system. Firstly, a school board has to have the right to set up a policy. Secondly, the policy must be determined to support a fundamental interest of the board as a whole. Thirdly, the guidelines cannot be set for the purpose of censorship or discrimination. Finally, the limits on student expression cannot be greater than the interest of the board. The court thus argued that as long as these four policies are followed, then no constitutional violation can be claimed.

The big question that begs, however, is whether school uniform is of any value to students. Why should we waste energy and resources over a matter that is of no tangible value? Several studies have tried to answer this question. In Long Beach California, when mandatory school uniform was introduced, a longitudinal study indicated that in the first year, fighting in schools decreased by half. Sexual offences declined by 74%. Similar studies have shown that school uniforms have a positive influence on student learning. Uniforms were found to create positive attitudes towards school. There was increased school pride, better student achievement, and increased commitment to learning. In another survey, parents and educators were found to favour uniforms, especially for economic reasons.

This notwithstanding, main opponents to enforcement of school uniform policies are those who stand on religious platforms. Unfortunately, when matters enter the religious realm, reason disappears and high emotions takeover. The truth is the that number of religious groupings that have specified uniforms for their members is large. With the trend being set by our courts, many of these groups are likely to demand that their members be exempted from putting on school uniforms.

Therefore, in the spirit of My Dress My Choice, we should just abandon this school uniform thing and let children dress as they please – even if they be birthday suits. 

- The writer is the Presiding Bishop of Christ is the Answer Ministries. [email protected]