School uniforms need a radical redesign to better meet the needs of students, particularly for girls, who are often forced to wear uniforms that prevent them from being physically active in their lunch breaks and from cycling to and from school, a public health researcher says.
Dr Johanna Reidy from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington, conducted an exploratory review of existing research on the link between school uniform garments, policies about uniform use and their impact on education and health.
“Given the heat around the issue I expected to find a clear link between uniform garments and academic outcomes. After all students are at school to learn. But there is no direct link. What I did find was a significant amount of research about the impact of school uniform garments on physical activity and on minority groups.”
Dr Reidy says the evidence shows school uniforms can influence mental health and encourage physical activity.
“The research shows we can do better both in terms of school uniform design and in developing policies about how uniform is worn and by whom. It highlights that instead of talking about whether uniforms are good or bad, it's time to reimagine them to address physical and mental comfort for everyone. If students are in a good headspace and are physically active, they're better placed to learn.”
Dr Reidy says despite females making up half the population, they are being disadvantaged by the design of school uniforms.
“Restrictive school uniforms are limiting physical activity by girls and creating a barrier to lunch time play, and the style of school uniforms and the lack of warmth is making female students reluctant to cycle to and from school. It can come down to not wanting to cycle to school or play on the jungle gym for fear of inadvertently flashing your knickers.”
Girls in particular are significantly more active at school when they are wearing PE gear, rather than their regular school uniform.
“Girls' uniforms also tend to be more expensive, showing that even here there is a 'pink tax' for female-oriented products that perform the same function as a unisex/male alternative.”
Dr Reidy says school uniforms also fail to make the grade when it comes to providing students with adequate sun protection.
“Local research shows students at New Zealand schools with a uniform code had lower total body coverage from their clothing than those at schools without a uniform, even though we know that hats with a brim and sun-safe clothing improve sun protection and reduce skin damage.”
She says putting aside the ongoing debate over whether uniforms should be worn by school students at all, more thought needs to be put into improving their design with an eye to wellbeing.
“School students should be able to wear uniforms that are affordable, comfortable, keep them warm on cold days, offer protection from the sun in summer, and that they find enjoyable to wear.
“Current school uniform policies disadvantage not just girls, but also ethnic and religious minorities and gender-diverse students, and put barriers in the way of education for poorer families who struggle to afford the high upfront cost of uniforms.”
Dr Reidy says it is possible to optimise the design of uniforms, with previous international research examining issues such as the quality and durability of garments, the use of high visibility/reflectiveness panels for road safety and the need for physical comfort whatever the weather.
She says instead of schools being prescriptive about the clothes worn by particular genders, or ages, or at different times of the year, they could offer a range of gender-neutral uniform choices, and allow students to choose the garments they feel most comfortable wearing.
“Uniforms take away the worst of competitive dressing and the stress about having the 'right' clothes. Given the evidence that particular uniform styles themselves make no difference to academic performance, let's focus on what uniforms do influence: physical activity, sun protection and inclusiveness.
“We need to make school uniforms a bit more relevant to modern life and provide choices of garments that allow physical activity at school and on the school journey, and policies that allow students to dress according to the weather and accommodate diversity.
“If we compel students to wear uniforms they should promote wellbeing and allow students to thrive. A school whose uniform policy insists students wear shorts in the middle of winter or summer uniforms in an unseasonably cold snap is really old fashioned and out of step with the values that people have now and what we know about education and learning.”
For further information, please contact:
Dr Johanna Reidy
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
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