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Uniforms, such as these at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., reinforce a sense of community among students, schools say. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Uniforms, such as these at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., reinforce a sense of community among students, schools say. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

Clothing

The pros and cons of school uniforms Add to ...

On her second day as a junior kindergartener, Holly Huehn’s daughter kicked up a fuss over the uniform she was required to wear as a student at St. John’s-Kilmarnock School in Breslau, Ont.

“She wasn’t keen on it,” recalls Ms. Huehn. “She wanted to accessorize it.”

Ms. Huehn and her daughter – now in fifth grade and proud to wear her uniform – aren’t the only parents and students to get pulled into the uniform debate. The question of whether or not it’s a good idea to put students in identical, school-issued attire is one that continues to elude unanimous agreement.

The most recently released survey by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association found that a majority of students – close to 65 per cent – didn’t think uniforms would enhance the school environment. By comparison, parents and teachers were split almost equally between the yes and no camps when it came to uniforms.

Support for uniforms was stronger at Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, where 75 per cent of families surveyed two years ago said they approved of uniforms. When classes restarted for the 2014-2015 school year, its students came in wearing the school’s new, green-and-gold uniforms.

“The No. 1 objection we hear is that uniforms take away opportunities for students to express their individuality,” says Joanne Hewat, vice-president of business development and customer care at McCarthy Beatties, a Toronto-based uniform supplier for hundreds of schools across Canada, including about 200 private schools. “Another key objection is cost – a lot of people think uniforms are costly.”

The notion of allowing students to express themselves through their clothing is one that’s embraced at Blyth Academy, which has headquarters in Toronto and 11 campuses in Ontario.

“For teenagers, this stage of development is all about deciding their individuality,” says Jennifer Flynn-Clark, principal at Blyth Academy in London, Ont., which runs a high-school program. “We find that not having uniforms creates an environment where they’re comfortable in their own skin.”

There is a flipside to this point of view. Jeff Aitken, head of St. John’s-Kilmarnock School, says uniforms reinforce a sense of community among students and instantly identify them as part of a tight-knit group.

“Parents feel strongly about that,” says Dr. Aitken. “They like the idea that uniforms put the focus on the larger group and on community identity.”

Uniforms also level the playing field because there are no designer brands to suggest that some students are more stylish than others, or that some families can afford more expensive clothing, Dr. Aitken says.

Ms. Hewat at McCarthy Beatties says safety is among the top benefits of having a school uniform.

“You can easily identify who does and doesn’t belong in the school,” she says. “With a quick glance, you can instantly determine that a person shouldn’t even be in the school.”

The convenience of uniforms also gets a lot of thumbs-ups from parents and students, who no longer need to rummage through their closets in the morning in search of something to wear to school, Ms. Hewat says.

“Ease of care is also something parents find so important,” she adds. “Everything we make is washable in the machine so you don’t have to dry clean, and we have minimal shrinkage on our products.”

Cost-savings is also a key consideration, she adds, as parents do not need to buy as many clothes for their children.

For further cost savings, some schools run used uniform programs, where parents can buy another student’s outgrown items at a discounted price. At St. John’s-Kilmarnock School, for example, uniforms bought through its used uniform program are priced at 40 per cent less than if they were bought new.

“When families buy new uniforms, they have the option to donate their old ones to the school,” explains Dr. Aitken. “Our parents association then hosts a huge used-uniform sale, and the money raised from this sale goes directly to the school and our students.”

St. John-Kilmarnock’s used uniform program has funded things like school trips to watch a play, or a new set of microscopes for the school’s science lab, says Dr. Aitken.

As for complaints about uniforms covering up students’ individual identities, Dr. Aitken says there is some room for students to style their school outfits. For the girls, there are skirts and skorts to choose from. For students in Grades 11 and 12, there are more colour options, he says.

“There’s even more flexibility around the length of the skirts,” says Dr. Aitken. “About 10 years ago, the rule was it had to be four centimetres above the knee; today, we allow the skirt to be a bit shorter.”

Another good thing about school uniforms? They make students look forward to civvies day, when they get to pick something out of their own curated closet, Ms. Huehn says.

“It becomes more fun, something they really plan for,” she says.

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