Schools across Australia are increasingly ditching their uniforms for everyday “free dress”, but child psychology experts remain firm: the uniform should stay.
Parents across the nation this week waved their children goodbye for the first day back at school, with many sporting checked dresses, polo shirts and the ubiquitous flip-style netball skirts.
But Fitzroy High School in Melbourne’s inner suburbs and Indooroopilly State High School in Brisbane were among a small percentage of schools that allowed a few more colourful fabrics onto school grounds.
So long as it was “not offensive”, “not too short” or “not too brief” these schools welcomed children’s self-expression through clothing.
But child psychology experts beg to disagree, saying the benefits of school uniforms outweigh the potential problems of free dress.
Australian Catholic University Professor Peter Wilson, who researches the field of motor and cognitive development in children, told The New Daily uniforms deter social-status comparisons and reduce pressure on children about their clothing options.
He said children were sensitive to labelled clothing and brands and had the potential to create “in groups” and “out groups”.
“There is an argument in the United States, where uniforms are less common than they are here in Australia and the UK, that clothing can promote a strong-sense of independence and freedom of thought,” he said.
“That’s very much a part of the US ethos, however kids and adolescents still get opportunities to express their individuality with clothing [on occasions] and in their choice of pastime or recreation outside of school.”
Perth-based child psychologist Jordan Foster told The New Daily the uniform model “as it stands is still working”.
Ms Foster said there was scientific evidence to support both the US free-dress model and the Australian model, where uniforms are generally enforced in government and many private school institutions.
She said uniforms fostered a sense of camaraderie, a unity within peer groups, minimised bullying in schools and particularly assisted children with developmental issues.
“Having a uniform makes them feel included when they otherwise might not,” Ms Foster said.
“Everyone is on the same page, there is a sense of belonging and any differences between socio-economic status gets ruled out.”
The cost factor
Children’s desire for designer brands aside, the jury is still out on what is more affordable, free dress or school-designed uniforms.
Managing director of Melbourne-based school uniform shop Dobson’s, Alistair Dobson, said the average price for a basic basket of clothes for a government-school uniform ranged between $240 and $340, with independent schools registering a slightly higher top figure of $380.
However, those numbers are dwarfed by the cost parents must fork out for the bare basics at a number of Victorian schools, according to the Dobson’s website.
Scotch College, an independent school in Melbourne’s inner-east, demands $465 for these basics: a blazer, a shirt, a pair of school shorts, a set of trousers, a tie, a pair of socks, a backpack, and a sports ensemble.
For a standard uniform at the co-educational Auburn High School, parents will be set back $500 for a blazer, a dress, a pullover, a winter skirt, a polo top, and a pair of sports shorts.
The ‘safety’ factor
President of the South Australian Association of School Parent Communities Jenice Zerna believes uniforms ensure student safety.
“If somebody comes on grounds not in uniform, someone can look out and notice,” she said.
“It’s more effective – they look really good, the classes are in the same colours, it looks nice and can be a good reflection on the school.”
However, Ms Zerna acknowledged free dress policies could be acceptable if appropriate standards were upheld.
“It’s all about consultation with the students and the parents … if the students are involved, I would be more supportive,” she said.