At first, Patricia Bullock was having none of it. “I was pretty sure the world was going to end,” she laughs. Bullock was then entering Grade 11 at her new school in Regina, and she was less than enthused to learn that she’d have to wear a uniform. Consisting of a white blouse, navy dress, and a polyester A-line jumper with a “very ugly” school crest, it was an outfit that emphasized function over fashion. And yet, Bullock warmed up to the uniform pretty quickly—if not its look, then at least the way it simplified things. “That is actually what I found, that it was incredibly freeing.”
Although in Canada we don’t have a culture of wearing uniforms to school, the larger debate over dress codes and what kids should or shouldn’t be wearing to school is very much alive. For some parents and school districts, the answer lies in school uniforms. The idea has been gaining some traction in recent decades. In the U.S., over a fifth of public schools now require uniforms, up from around 12 percent in 2000. Stats for Canada are hard to come by, but school uniforms are fairly common in Quebec and in Catholic schools in southern Ontario. Here in central Alberta the idea is still fairly new, but with a number of local schools and programs opting for uniforms over civvies, it’s an option that’s worth taking a deeper look at.
Locally, school districts are fairly open to the idea of implementing uniforms—if that’s what parents ask for. But those decisions are typically left to the discretion of individual schools and their communities.
In St. Albert, the Cogito program at Elmer S. Gish requires uniforms for its elementary students. However, Paula Power of St. Albert Public Schools notes that there have been “no discussions to expand that to other programs or schools, as we’ve not heard anything from parents indicating there’s an interest.”
Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools delegates dress code policies to principals, who in turn consult with various stakeholders, namely students, staff, parents, and school councils. “The dress and grooming have to conform with reasonable standards of neatness, cleanliness, good taste, and health,” says Superintendent David Keohane. He notes that the subject of uniforms does come up from time to time, though to be successfully implemented, the idea has to come from parents. “These concepts don’t work well if a school-based group wants to foist it on others.”
Bullock is now the mother of a teenage daughter who recently graduated from the Nellie McClung Girls’ Junior High, a program within Edmonton Public Schools. A noticeable aspect of the program is the uniforms worn by its students, known as “Nellies.” The basic or “number one” uniform consists of a blue-and-green tartan kilt and tie, white oxford shirt, navy cardigan and knee socks, and black shoes. The uniform wasn’t the primary reason that Bullock’s daughter chose the program, but it helped it stand out.
“She was just attracted to the idea of being in that [all girls] community,” Bullock says. “It was a smaller school, which is also appealing, and just being able to explore some diversity, I think that was important as well.”
Established in 1995, the Nellie McClung program currently has two campuses, Avonmore in southeast Edmonton and Oliver in the central core, though it will soon consolidate at the latter, where Bullock’s daughter studied. The “Nellies” share Oliver School with both an elementary and a French-immersion Kindergarten. While only the Nellies wear a uniform, all three are public school programs. It’s an important distinction, as Bullock found she would often have to inform people that no, her daughter was not attending a private school.
Nonetheless, Oliver School is one place that almost cries out for a blouse, blazer, and kilt combo. Its centerpiece is the original three-storey, red-brick schoolhouse, which opened in March 1911. “Boys” is still etched in the stone doorway arch above one of the original entrances, “Girls” above the other. “It’s like going to Hogwarts,” says Bullock. “They even have a Harry Potter week every year.”
It may be assumed that most Canadian teenagers aren’t exactly clamouring for the opportunity to wear a uniform to school. But according to Bullock, a lot of first-year Nellies are doing so for the first time, indicating at least that it’s not always a deal-breaker. Curiosity may play a small role, as uniforms are still a fairly rare sight at publicly funded schools in Alberta. Nonetheless, uniforms have found a foothold here, in such public programs as Nellie McClung and Cogito, in charter schools like Aurora, and in “academy”-style schools like Jean Forest, an all-girls program within Edmonton Catholic Schools.
The reasons why can likely be found in the positive things people often associate with uniforms: academic achievement, discipline, hard work, and the like. Harry Potter probably hasn’t hurt, either. Interestingly, in the U.S. the idea of uniforms has caught on strongly in many inner-city, low-income neighbourhoods. Worried about gang influence and unnecessary competition in clothing, education officials have increasingly turned to uniforms as a way to encourage professionalism among students.
Proponents of uniforms often point to the clothing aspect as a reason for implementing uniforms. They see clothes as too much of a distraction for students. Like adults, kids have a tendency to size each other up based on fashion choices, and clothes can further reveal income differences between families. Then there’s the cost, in time and money, of purchasing clothes and deciding what to wear each morning. The research is rather inconclusive, but does point to some positive effects of uniforms. A 2011 study out of Texas, for example, suggests that uniforms help improve attendance and graduation rates.
However, that same study did not find a link between uniforms and grades. Opponents are also quick to point out that uniforms are frequently seen as symbols of conformity and a way for school administrators to exert authority and mitigate personal expression.
Then there’s the cost. Oddly, this one winds up being an argument both for and against uniforms. It can be a lot to pay upfront, although the clothes do tend to last a while, possibly saving parents money in the long run. According to Bullock, the kilt alone at Nellie McClung costs around $100, but in three years she only had to buy two, along with one sweater and two. Not including shoes, she estimates she spent around $700 over three years. She also points out that schools help out through used uniform sales, and many students donate old uniforms once they’ve moved on. Whether the additional cost is a burden or a bargain may depend on the specific uniform and the perspective of the person paying for it.
For Bullock, it comes down to the practicality of a uniform. Her own high school uniform, while not attractive, was at least designed to be affordable and could even be sewn and put together at home. The simplicity of a uniform that everyone else at school wears also has some appeal—in fact, it was the very thing Bullock found freeing about her own experience of wearing a uniform.
“The more we can simplify the things that aren’t important, the more we give kids the mental bandwidth to cope with the things that are,” she explains. “You don’t want your teenage girl to be out of good choices by 2:00 in the afternoon.”
Unsurprisingly, student opinions are also divided and often echo those of adults. Cordelia Byfield, 10, who has worn a uniform for six years in the Cogito program at Stratford School in Edmonton, feels that uniforms improve learning.
“Sometimes people make fun of or gossip about others because of their clothing,” she says. “Then their focus gets worse and they don’t do as well in school as they could. Her sister Mercia, 15, has spent the last four years in a non-uniform school after four years at Stratford. She doesn’t feel uniforms restrict personal expression. “Just because a student has access to better clothes does not mean they can better express themselves.”
Fiona, a recent high school graduate who wore a uniform at Nellie McClung, is somewhat more ambivalent about the experience. “It was kinda nice to not have to worry about outfits every day. It also did not look good on any of us, which was unifying in a way.”
As for the link between uniforms and good grades, she’s more dismissive. “I got honours in junior high in my kilt, knee socks, and oxford shirt, and I got honours in high school when I rolled up in a crop top three days in a row. People learn best when they are comfortable. If that’s in a hijab, or in pajama pants, or short shorts, all the more power to them.”
Bullock admits that
uniforms are an attraction for some, but not for all.
For her, programs like Nellie McClung and their uniform policies at least provide an additional option for parents and students looking, perhaps, for a purer learning environment. She rightly points out that even non-uniform schools still have “uniforms,” albeit ones decided by family income and fashion trends and not by educational expectations.
“It puts up a lot of barriers that have nothing to do with learning, and at
the end of the day, have nothing to do with life.” t8n