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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

School Uniforms: Are They Discriminating Technique of Power

By Edward Theophilus Wanigasekera

It is quite agreeable view that the garment system of which they are a part, are a significant cultural force, they help to frame the body and to inscribe personalizing functions (Symes and Meadmore, 1996). Obviously, the garment reflects some cultural identity in any country. When we see a couple, the man is wearing a long sleeve top without a collar and a sarong and the woman wearing an osari we are quite right in identifying them as Sri Lankans. In the same way a person with a grown beard, who wearing a jata on the head, we assume that the person has a link to Indian sheiks. The garment reflects not only the cultural identity but also some kind of power in the society.

When we look at a person wearing army uniform or police uniform we are informed the power of them. People who are traveling in Tram No 69 along Gelenferry road or Tram No 8 along the Toorak road in morning or afternoon, obviously with notice that kids are wearing different kinds of garments and it is easy to determine that they are school kids, who are studying in Scotch College, Xavier College, Methodist College, St Kevin or Melbourne Grammar.

What is the objective of school uniforms? Is it a way of expressing power or an instrument to separate students from the general society? Could school garments exercise power techniques at micro level of education (schools)? Could garments or school uniforms compel to separate or prevent kids from schooling or discriminate disadvantage kids gaining empowerment at micro level of education?

There is no doubt that the objective of pedagogy is to construct empowerment of students, who may be advantaged or disadvantaged. Professor Jennifer Gore at Newcastle university states that pedagogy seems to involve a teacher (an agent) who gives knowledge, responsibility and more (property) to students and aims to produce a particular conception of educated students (a vision). A teacher is an agent at micro level giving empowerment to students and if the teacher is an emancipatory leader among students, who gives feminist pedagogy, it would be more helpful to disadvantaged students. In such a background, it is possible that school uniforms will be subjected to degrade the status of emancipatory leadership of teacher, when she or he comes to exercise the techniques of power in the classroom. Under the technique of surveillance, the teacher requires inspecting uniforms of students and if any student is not wearing the right uniform due to poverty, the teacher has to get away from the feminist ideology and requires exercising the power technique of exclusion. Is it a right action? This is a significant issue involves in school uniforms.

Modern schools celebrate many rituals, which were developed and legalized as a significant part of power relations. For examples, sport events, language day, international teachers’ day are directly or indirectly related to values. However, it is not clear whether the uniform does provide strong evidence that it relates to empowerment of students at the school. Uniforms are used as a marketing devise in private schools and we can observe that certain government schools in Australia too promote uniform as a marketing device. The colors and the shape of the uniforms differ from one school to another. This means that when taking school children as a whole, uniforms do not reflect students as a uniform group of human beings attempting to achieve educational objectives, but it helps in identifying a student as a student of a certain school. The concept of uniform as it operates in current schools is deviating from the concept of uniforms in defense forces of employees in workplaces.

Many literatures we read in relation to power and pedagogy are based on the school environment in developed countries, especially in Western countries. Many rituals and uniforms in Western schools are strongly related with power techniques such as surveillance, exclusion, distribution etc. Uniforms are a significant part of Western schools because uniforms are used as a marketing device rather than an instrument to gain or give power to students. In many third world countries, uniforms have not become an instrument that has a power relation and many government schools have no specific policies about uniforms. However, it seems that uniforms and related regulation in western schools contradict with democratic values as schools could exclude children from gaining power if they have means to purchase uniforms. Inclusion is a highly regarded democratic value in Western society but when it comes to uniforms in schools; the value of inclusion degrades excluding students, those who are not wearing uniforms from schools.

There has not been found any credible evidence that school uniform would support student’s empowerment, particularly improving intelligence or thinking power of students. There are many credible evidence in Western countries that although students wear uniforms to schools, some students, who wear uniforms would fail from examinations if they do not study. That means uniforms have no magic power to give knowledge and skills to students. In industrial environment there is logic behind wearing uniforms of safety cloths but such logical or scientific reasons are not behind school uniforms. However, logic behind uniform could be giving certain responsibilities to students. When students wear uniforms in schools, they undertake a responsibility or an accountability that they should follow the procedure of wearing the uniform and they cannot depart from the procedure without a significant reason.

When compared to educational objectives of third world countries, the assertion of Synott and Symes (1995) that” whilst school badge is an important facet of school life, particularly in those countries like Australia and Britain, which have retained it, it is one which is under the appreciation as an important emblem instantiating premodal education values from the moral and theological repertoire of Western culture in the main drawn from the nineteenth century, when the iconography of contemporary schooling was established and universalized” wouldn’t be logical because the idea is based on imperialist culture rather than real education values that are useful to third world countries. The government education administration in USA does not force wearing uniforms to schools. There is evidence that school uniforms have been used as a racist symbol in South African White Schools during apartheid regime.

We should not narrowly view the negative aspect of school uniforms because there are some positive effects in school uniforms and power relations at micro level in developed countries like Australia. Symes and Meadmore (1996) identified several positive aspects of school uniforms

• The role of dress and its relationships to the body can be seen as part of a larger cultural scheme underpinned with manifold references.

• The school uniforms associate with the formalization of students’ appearance.

• The uniform represents the outward orientation of a whole series of superscript antecedents that have been obscured in the course of its history.

• School uniforms following the convention elsewhere in the uniform universe are, in fact, highly sexualized, expressing the same range of concerns.

• The uniform presents moral interpretations as a positive signifier, a justifying set of rationalities.

• The theory of uniform, which exist at the school level, draws in a pool of similar sentiments.

However, what kind of effects will be in third world countries is vital point that should be positively discussed. The objective of pedagogy is to construct empowerment of students. School events, rituals or traditions should be supportive of this objective of education. The question in relation to uniforms is how it supports in constructing empowerment of students.

The experience of this writer in some pacific countries proves that uniform will be a hindrance to constructing power of students in third world countries. Many current developments in schools in developed countries are connected to market economic system that tends to discriminate against poor or disadvantaged people. For example extravagance pursuing technology, fast food marketing in schools, setting school fees on the basis of cost factors, user pay system and school uniforms are unaffordable inventions to parents in third world countries.

We can observe many street kids in South Pacific Countries and I directed them the following question.

“This is the time that you should be in schools. Why are you walking here and there? Don’t you go to schools?” The replies from the kids were quite disappointing.

“Our parents have no money to pay school fee”

“We have no money to buy uniforms”

“We have no bus fare”

The answers reflect that uniform can be a hindrance to construct empowerment of poor kids in third world countries.

When uniforms are insisted on as a tradition in schools, teachers are required to exercise power techniques such as surveillance, exclusion, rules and many other things. If there is a student in the classroom without formal uniform or in civil dress, the student will be subjected to exclusion or sometime a student not in uniform due to poverty may face bad humiliation. In 2003 I went to a primary school, which was run by Lutheran Church in PNG with final year B.Ed students for practicum. At the beginning, we observed how the school assembly was conducted by teachers and students. The school principal addressed the assembly and announced that a university lecturer has come with student teachers for teaching practice and advised teachers and students to cooperate with them. In the meantime, the Deputy Principal performed a specific duty checking students’ uniforms after the principal’s address.

Students in that area were suffering from utter poverty and the life of their parent was an unmitigated struggle for a living. One student attended to the accessibly was not wearing regular uniform but was wearing a dirty shirt and a short. Deputy Principal approached him and shouted at him saying, “are you an animal or a human being?’ He ordered the student to go out from the school premises. I saw that it was a bad humiliation to the student. I assumed that he was not in regular uniform because of poverty but not any other reason. Later I talked to the Deputy Principal about the incident and he admitted that the rule of uniform in schools shall possibly be a hindrance to construct empowerment of power and disadvantaged students. Although it was a Christian school that was supposed to develop a conception that equity, equality and sympathy to poor, the punishments for students, who don’t wear uniform due to poverty appeared be more harsh and beyond the justice.

The deputy principal understood the issue in relation to imposing of specific uniform rule to the school but he was unable to act socially just feminist administrator as the existing rigid rules on uniform prevented him acting as a feminist leader. The legal base or rules relating to school administration always support to take action against feminist teachers and sometimes, school administrators can manipulate current administrative law or rules against teachers. As long as rules are rigid for school traditions such uniform, the functional area of feminist pedagogy will be limited in schools.

The idea of Joseph (1986) assets that the wearing of uniform rarely signifies uniformity, on the contrary it confers a sign of difference among a uniform population providing a visible symbol of rank and position within an organization or institutions. The objective of school uniforms in third world countries certainly agrees with this view that wearing uniforms rarely signifies uniformity as different colors and shapes are used in different schools that attempt to reflect the image of the school than the uniformity of kids generally as students.

Many schools, which are managed by various church groups or Christian sects in developing countries, attempt to use school uniform as a symbol of church’s identity or to recognize as a follower of a particular Christian denomination than a positive signifier for power relation. When a country has a very low literacy rate such as 42% and when parent of that country are not in an affordable economic condition to supply school uniforms to their kids, it is not a justifiable tradition insisting on uniform for schools. The essential requirement in third world countries is to provide literacy and numeric skills to students and in such efforts the uniform plays no role other than creating problems for schools

The use of uniforms to reflect or even exaggerate the gap between rich and poor is an unacceptable conception that leads to divide the society. If we do accept that the objective pedagogy is empowering students the school regulation should allow or accept the broad objectives of pedagogy without creating differences in the society.

Creating traditions in schools should be based on multiple objectives rather than a single point of views. The traditions should not penalize students and their status and they should not be subject to harsh rules and regulations, which lead to students’ exclusion from studies. Teachers should be given authority to decide whether the imposition of a particular tradition could be justifiable or not.

In spite of the relationship of school uniforms between the construction of empowerment and students, there is a strong and productive aspect of uniforms in third world countries. This idea is based on the aspect of giving responsibility to students.

There is no argument that the objective of pedagogy is to construct empowerment of students and in this process, it is essential to give certain responsibility to students. In the traditional way of pedagogy, it was generally accepted that teachers have to play more roles in the classroom than students in education. School inspectors usually blamed teachers for students’ weakness. Based on this ideology, many parents used to blame teachers for the failure of their kids. However, as a result of changing educational strategies (Outcome Based Education and Competency Based Training), the responsibility of learning has been shifted to students or learners. This means that students are responsible for their own learning and teachers play mentoring role or facilitators’ role. Under the new education theories, students will be responsible in constructing their own power. How can school develop this ideology among students? School uniforms play a significant role to stress that students are responsible people in the society and they are responsible for their own behavior.

How do school uniforms give this idea to students? The wearing of uniform to school signifies that students follow a procedure or an order, when they are performing a task. The uniform is a symbol or procedure that involves a certain rule and procedure to wear. When students wear uniform everyday they are conformity to a practice that is acceptable to schools and to the society. On the other hand, the procedure is subject to the control of rules or rescrutinizing process or audit. This is more productive aspect of uniforms than the marketing aspect of uniforms that many schools attempt to show.

- Asian Tribune -

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