The school uniform: Why is it such a British obsession?

With school uniforms an accepted part of school life in the UK, Richard Naylor, High School Principal of ACS Egham International School examines the reasons why and asks if there is a better way.

The school uniform: Why is it such a British obsession?
Why is the UK so hung up on school uniforms, and what options do you have if you’re starting at a new school in the country?Richard Naylor, High School Principal of ACS Egham International School, explores the phenomenon of school uniforms and provides a refreshingly open view on the subject for worried parents relocating to the country.

Conveying a sense of discipline

From age five, almost all children in the UK wear a uniform to school. Since the 1960s and 70s the general policy towards uniform, especially in state schools, has become more strict. Schools often adopt a new uniform to suggest a fresh start or convey a sense of discipline. For a busy teacher in a nursery school or early years class with 30 four and five-year-olds, many of whom have only recently mastered the art of planning a toilet trip on time, having a standard, easy to slip-on uniform is a real help to the teacher and child.But wearing a uniform remains commonplace in state and private schools in the UK, often right up to the age of 18, and is frequently a source of conflict between the school, the student and the parent.It is not unusual to see headlines in national newspapers on the subject, such as this one in the Daily Telegraph last July: Police called to parent protest outside school after 50 children sent home for wearing wrong uniformIt is exceptional to discover a school where none of the children wear uniform. ACS is one such school. It has three campuses around London; in Cobham, Egham and Hillingdon, for children aged from two to 18 and at none of the schools, at any age, do the children wear uniform.

Why no uniform at ACS?

Why do ACS schools have a ‘no uniform’ policy? And is this a good or bad thing for a parent re-locating to the UK and looking for the right school for their children?It is a philosophical point at ACS. We have a dress code, but we don’t have a school uniform because we want to encourage our students to make independent decisions about what they wear, and we don’t think what’s on the outside affects what’s on the inside.Our exam results are first class, we enrol students with a range of academic abilities but achieve well above average results. Our students achieve Russell Group university entry, and are able to go to the best universities in the world, with results consistently above 36 points at the IB, equivalent to 4 A’s at A level. We have small classes where the students are thriving. Why do we need a uniform? In what way could it make the students achieve more, why would we do it? What identifies us is the ethos we create, not the uniform we wear.

The value of a warm welcome

Many schools adopt a strict uniform code to try and introduce better behaviour, or a sense of belonging to a community to encourage togetherness and a positive ethos. But at ACS, we don’t think that is necessary. Having a sense of belonging is about how you treat people and how you ask people to treat others. It is about setting an expectation of friendliness. Respect and tolerance comes from being a diverse community and at ACS that is the heart of what we do. It is a philosophy that makes us different from traditional schools because we start from a place where we are all different and our students have to grow up in a respectful and tolerant way. Having a uniform would be an artificial imposition, as if our students couldn’t achieve a sense of community, togetherness and tolerance without it.For relocating parents, this ability to feel welcome and part of a community very quickly is extremely important. It is one of the reasons why international schools like ACS are such a natural, sensible choice for relocating or expat parents, because the schools have developed highly effective approaches and positive techniques to help children and their families feel settled and at home exceptionally quickly. 

An outward looking perspective

It also explains why ACS is an increasingly popular choice with British families too, who are looking for a school which has a more outward-looking, global perspective, whilst still providing the sense of belonging and confidence which is such an important foundation for effective learning.Traditional institutions are very protective of their uniform as they represent the past, and what they were. They don’t represent the future. ACS played Eton at chess on Wednesday at Egham. When the Eton students took off their ties and coat tail jackets you wouldn’t know where they were from. When you talk to people on a personal level then we are all the same. Many uniforms are bound up in tradition. Visually Eton needs to stay the way it always has to show its past, but is that really right or forward thinking?There is no intrinsic value between the clothes you wear and the achievements you might make in anything at all. It can be a relief not to have a uniform, it can certainly help some people feel more relaxed and creative.
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ACS is committed to not having a uniform from the philosophical point of view that what you wear does not define your achievements or who you are. Whatever our students wear, wherever they come from, they will all feel the same welcome and share the same global outlook.

A 'uniform' is vital for sport

Sport of course is one situation where a uniform does make a difference because players and spectators need to be able to see who is on which team and identify players.We have sports kits for all our teams. We play matches including football, rugby, cricket, swimming and tennis in local leagues in and around London, as well as against other teams across Europe and, in these situations, team kit is essential.

Good confidence and relationships

Why then, when ACS has made such a success in creating happy, academically high performing children do so many schools in the UK still persist with their strict uniform policies? What makes children well behaved at school or learn and achieve better results is feedback from their teacher. It’s about building a relationship where that child feels valued; that you took the time to look at what they’re doing.The issue in many schools is that the classes are too big and teachers can’t give the consistency needed to build up an academic relationship which builds confidence. If you have confidence and good relationships, the uniform fades into the background.We have to encourage our students, teachers and leaders to be creative and make progress in what they’re doing. If something is a barrier to learning, then we want to take that barrier away. For us a uniform is a barrier to accepting people for who they are. Uniform is a way of keeping people in line but it isn’t an indicator of good behaviour, and it certainly isn’t a technique we use to build a sense of belonging and community. 

The perfect choice

For relocating parents, ACS’s approach to school uniform is perfect – no uniform to worry about buying, no children to upset with a tight tie or strange pair of trousers, but instead a modern philosophy of welcome and acceptance, with sporting and academic excellence.Find out more about ACS 
ACS is a group of four schools, three close to London and one in Doha, Qatar

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