The impact of school uniforms on mental health
A growing body of research suggests school uniform has a positive impact on pupils' wellbeing. By David Burgess, Chair of the Schoolwear Association
Posted by Julian Owen | July 02, 2018 | School life
mental-health, school-uniforms, david-burgess, schoolwear-association, oxford-brookes-university

School pupils may occasionally be criticised for flouting school uniform rules, but deep down it seems they value wearing one more than we perhaps think.

Back in 2007, in a study commissioned by the Schoolwear Association, researchers from Oxford Brookes University ran a series of focus groups with students aged 13–17 to uncover their perceptions around wearing a uniform. Feedback from the teenagers revealed that a consistent dress code meant they didn’t have to decide what to wear each day or worry about whether they would be bullied or criticised by their peers. The study also found that a uniform promotes commonality among pupils, improves concentration and fosters a sense of pride, especially when they wear it in public.

The advantage of wearing a school uniform has become more pertinent at a time when many fear our young people are unhappier than ever before. Last year, over half a million young people under the age of 18 were referred to mental health services, although there are likely to be many more who are experiencing difficulties without treatment. There are also those who, while not suffering from a diagnosable condition, feel the unrelenting pressure to look a certain way or fit in at all times – heightened, I’m sure, by the widespread use of social media.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that a school uniform is a silver bullet that will alleviate the complex issue of poor mental health among young people overnight. Nevertheless, the role it plays in promoting pride, self-confidence through achievement and a feeling of belonging cannot be underestimated. At the very least, it means pupils have one less thing to think about when they are caught up in a whirlwind of exams, coursework and navigating friendship groups.

A decade after the publication of the Oxford Brookes study, we conducted our own research into the subject and found that little had changed.

Working with focus groups of Year 7 and Year 9 students, our aim was to find out what impact wearing a uniform had on their self-esteem and appearance, identity, behaviour, learning and bullying. Far from stifling their personality and creative expression, the majority of young people told us they like wearing a uniform and, in fact, non-uniform days make them anxious because they feel they have to conform to what is considered the ‘norm’.

Other key findings include:

 - A sense of equality created by uniforms among students from different socio-economic backgrounds, without the pressure to buy expensive brands

 - A clear dress code that sets boundaries and helps pupils to see school as a working environment

 - Reduces many distractions associated with personal appearance

Our study is supported by the experiences of those working in education, including Dr Julian Murphy who is headmaster of Our Lady’s Convent School, part of Loughborough Endowed Schools.

“Whether we like it or not, human beings are tribal. They respond positively to symbols such as flags, badges and uniforms, which give them a sense of pride, membership and identity. In my experience from pupil voice sessions, young people will often ask for modifications to their uniform and to the dress code in terms of comfort and convenience, but none of them ever want to get rid of uniform completely,” said Julian. 

It is rumoured that many leading minds, including Einstein, Steve Jobs and Barack Obama had seven identical suits or outfits in their wardrobes because they didn’t want to waste energy deciding what to wear, and Julian added that a school uniform removed one more piece of distracting ‘mental clutter’ they have to cope with each day.

David Burgess

We might think that young people’s concerns around appearance begin at secondary school, but primary school pupils are not immune from the pressures either.

Hannah Phillips, is deputy head at Eversfield Preparatory School in Solihull which has a unique school uniform, supported by both parents and pupils, she explained: “Many of our children have access to both social media and the internet, so even at a young age, they are conscious about body image and whether their clothes are fashionable enough. School uniforms go a long way in reducing some of these anxieties because it underlines the fact that we are all equal here. 

“It is during their formative years that we sow the seeds for future success, and a uniform helps to embed positive behaviours,” continued Hannah. “Children understand how smart yet functional clothes help them to concentrate on their work more effectively – and it’s a lesson that continues through their lives, to secondary school and, eventually, work.”

For parents, wearing a school uniform is normally a more convenient and cost-effective option, while teachers see it as a way to instil discipline and pride, and facilitate learning at such an influential age in children’s lives. More important still, is the overwhelming evidence from pupils that they feel happier and more confident in their school colours. 

Schoolwear Association: schoolwearassociation.co.uk

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