Banned Afros? Uniformed Hijabs? How Much Say Should a School Have Over Their Students’ Appearance?
Is there a graduate of the British education system anywhere with positive memories of their school uniform? I beg to differ. I remember all too well, the shapeless, baggy polo-shirt, the evident class divide between the kids who rocked up at the school gate in their well-fitting, new uniforms, embroidered with the school crest, compared to the kids who rocked up like Ron Weasley in threadbare, faded hand-me-downs, and the kids whose parents had bought their unbranded school uniform in Asda.
I remember the struggle of trying to find shoes that conformed to my school’s draconian requirements, and the race to get to the shoe shop first, as supply never could meet demand. Schools, whether the one I attended over a decade ago or the one currently attended by my youngest sibling, by no means make it easy for us.
The uniform requirements at my school began simply enough; no trainers, no tennis shoes, no ballet pumps. Ah, but it didn’t stop there, dear reader. No velcro, or patent leather. Round laces, but not flat laces (trust me, there’s a difference). Shoes for girls required a rubber, block heel of exactly 1.25 inches, made by elves from the recycled yoga mats of school gate yummy mummies. Shades of charcoal noir, midnight stone or ‘black as my soul’ permitted.
Several years have passed since my school days, and yet even now, bad luck to anyone with a podiatry condition, or whose insoles don’t fit in their school shoes. Expect to be sent home in shame until your feet decide to behave themselves.
Then, of course, there are the uniforms themselves. With an increasing number of schools deciding that only the official branded uniforms are to be deemed acceptable, at a cost easily surpassing £80, or even £100 per outfit, school uniforms are thus becoming unaffordable for low-income families, who would until now have opted for buying unbranded uniforms in the ‘school colours’ at the local supermarket.
A week after my mother stocked up on enough sets of school uniform, including shoes, to see me through the rest of secondary school, I had my final, ill-advised growth spurt, after over a year of stubbornly remaining a lanky 5ft7. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed, and I spent two years self-consciously tugging at my now too-short skirt, the hemline of which had an awful habit of hitching up to accommodate the singular curve on my body; my arse.
As I’ve watched my younger siblings grow, and attend various school (we are a nomadic bunch), I’ve watched the rules grow only stricter, rather than more liberal or lenient. I, for one, only ever needed to worry about whether my hair dye could pass for a ‘natural’ shade. My sisters, however, had to contend with how long they could grow their hair, how they could style it, how much makeup they could wear, down to acceptable products (mascara, tolerated, false eyelashes, bad). Many of the boys at my school sported (often with regret) shoulder-length hair, or even longer, whereas most of my sisters’ schools included rules on ‘acceptable’ haircuts for their male/male-identifying students.
Through all this, I have to wonder, why, in 2021, are schools still assigning uniform policies at all? Having lived in several European countries, I can assure you that countries such as France, Spain, Italy, and Germany all manage fine without a uniform policy. America too sees no need for uniform policies, as we see in every teen high-school movie. In fact, a large number of western countries have seen fit to rid themselves of stuffy blazers and hideous clip-on-ties that seem to spend more time being thrown about the classroom than actually worn. So, why not us?
Uniforms don’t increase a student’s sense of loyalty or pride towards their school, as is an argument I’ve often seen made in their favour. It only gives them something else to rebel against (and they do, of course), something else for struggling families to budget for, and, so something else for pupils and parents alike to loathe. Personally, mutual hatred is not a bonding activity I prefer to share with my family.
It troubles me, to see students sent home for no other reason than for wearing the ‘wrong shoes’, or styling their hair in the ‘wrong way’. Since when has appearance and conformity taken precedence to education? How demoralising it must be for a student to be sent home for something so trivial? I can hardly see how it would encourage anything but feelings of dejection and a loss of motivation, or self-esteem.
In an age of diversity, with a growing platform for everything from womens’/mens’ rights, BAME, LGBTQ+ and the diverse gender spectrum, surely we should be encouraging individuality, rather than persisting in trying to squeeze students into a ‘one-uniform-fits-all’ system?
The student protests at Pimlico Academy in London raise further concerns on how oppressive uniform policies have become. Refusing to attend classes, students held a vigil in the school courtyard in protest against recent changes to school policy; an attempted ban on afros and policy rule that the hijab, turban, or other religious items of dress must be black or navy, both rules targeting minority groups within the student body.
While I understand the logic that, as Pimlico Academy’s uniform policy dictates a colour scheme of navy and black, thus, the school colours have simply been expanded to include the hijab, and other religious items of dress, I by no means agree with the decision to continue to oppress individuality.
What I find more troubling is the ban on the afro. Society has long encouraged black people to hide their hair under weaves and wigs or to have it relaxed, or braided, deeming the afro to be ‘unkempt’ and ‘unprofessional’. This policy change is a missed opportunity to encourage self-confidence and pride in a student’s background and individuality, including their ethnicity and religion. Pimlico Academy has instead opted for policies that fuel shame and self-doubt.
In short, it comes down to this; if a white student can wear their hair long, why can a black student not do so, only because their hair happens to grow in a different direction?
The official reason for the ban is that students with big hair would be disruptive in class, blocking the view of those sitting behind them. In that case, might I suggest that the problem lies with the classroom seating arrangement, rather than the way in which a student’s hair grows?
*Since writing the above, I can confirm that Pimlico’s headteacher has agreed to amend the uniform policy following student protests.