By Eva Dobozy
Every year, as children make their way back to school after the long summer holiday, school uniforms seem to be debated in the media.
Why? Because uniforms are captivating: loaded with subliminal ideological messages about the wearer’s power and status.
We hear experts and parents talk about the advantages of school uniforms, such as safety, sense of community and less peer pressure.
Equally strong are the voices of opponents of school uniforms and again, experts are found to support their position, arguing school uniforms are a source of discontent and rebellious behaviour, that demotivate students and impose financial hardship on poor families.
But the school uniform advocates are also very aware of the branding advantage school uniforms bring.
While uniform advocates argue that they erase divisions between students, it’s not hard to see how they can enhance differences between “elite” schools and “regular” schools.
In the Victorian State Government Advisory Guide for the development and review of school uniform policies it is noted that uniforms enhance “the profile and identity of the school”.
Uniforms as branding
While not usually viewed as luxury fashion items, the humble school uniform can become a proxy for the reputation of quality that a school may wish to convey.
Australian parents place strong emphasis on education, and although public schools can be associated with quality education, private schools are associated with exclusivity.
Hence, private schools may use the school uniform as a luxury brand identifier.
The private school sector is thriving: in 2017, only 65.6 per cent of children attended public schools, which is a record low.
In today’s age of heightened brand awareness and industry growth in luxury retailing, exclusive private schools are likely using their uniforms as marketing — although this may not be their primary purpose.
In effect, school uniforms can support the building of self-identity in students who may link their “luxury brand” uniforms to economic status and possibly pride.
As is noted on one of Curtin University’s webpages, “luxury branding is a valuable asset for any organisation that can be used to achieve a variety of positive outcomes”.
Some blaze their own trail
School uniforms have been worn in Australia since the late 19th century, when the nation’s colonial administrators sought to emulate the British school system. It’s clear from the longstanding debates that positions on school uniforms are firmly held and both sides are unlikely to change their minds.
Nevertheless, parents and children are pressuring some schools to interrogate their uniform policies, and changes are happening.
One example of this is the number of schools implementing gender neutral uniforms.
Western Australia is the first state to update its policy to mandate — effective this year — that public school dress code requirements are “similar for all students and include gender neutral options”.
Other states will likely follow suit. But given the brand power of school uniforms, it is questionable whether we will see rapid change in private schools’ uniforms.
Video: Six-year-old Sophie Mergler found a primary school that lets her wear shorts (Supplied: Amanda Mergler)
A challenge for schools
Schools and parents should be applauded for thinking critically about whether their uniform policy continues to serve the school community.
Teachers and school administrators could interrogate the school’s mission statement and strategic priorities to see how the current uniform policy aligns with their values.
Through consultation and discussion, schools can determine a policy that meets the school community’s needs.
Eva Dobozy is an education researcher and associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at Curtin University.