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School uniforms: what does science say?

School uniforms: what does science say?

On December 6, 2023, Minister of National Education Gabriel Attal announced the upcoming implementation of a large-scale experiment aimed at introducing the wearing of school uniforms. The hoped-for benefits will be, among other things, an improvement in the school climate and an increase in the academic standard of students. But the minister remains cautious and skeptical, waiting for scientific data without declaring his conviction that this will solve all the school’s problems.

But at no time did he cite or take into account previous studies conducted on the subject. However, even if they cannot replace new experiences, they can at least help calibrate expectations. Although such surveys are rare and not necessarily transferable to the French context, they do exist. And so, in 2021, the team of psychologist Johanna Reddy, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, published a fairly complete summary of the work done to date on this issue. The researcher began with a disapproval that is common in the Anglo-Saxon world and perfectly reflects the French situation: while debates rage between detractors and promoters, they remain essentially superficial. Opponents focus on the political symbolism of uniforms while carefully avoiding the central empirical question of their effectiveness.

92 studies have been carried out to date

However, Joanna Reddy's synthesis work has revealed a total of 92 scientific analyzes addressing the issue of school uniforms and their impact on student well-being and performance. Many of these studies have analyzed the impact of the imposed dress code on school discipline, the quality of students' concentration during lessons or the feeling of safety at school. With contradictory results but generally arguing the benefit of wearing a uniform in relation to these aspects. In schools that use it, students report a greater sense of security. In addition, they are generally more disciplined and can work more easily. Interesting arguments for improving educational level, working conditions and stress levels. But with negatives.

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Thus, many surveys show that wearing a uniform limits students' creativity and that part of the time usually allocated to learning is spent checking that clothing matches, or negotiating with students who refuse the restriction (especially if it has been recently introduced).

Conclusion: If we can expect better discipline, an increased feeling of security and starting to act more quickly will enhance learning, and on the other hand, time lost in negotiation and decreased creativity (which was especially observed in Korea) are likely to enhance learning. Impairing academic performance. On this last point, the studies are mixed and summaries of their results do not reveal any notable effect. Therefore, it is good for the Minister to be skeptical about the possible effects of uniforms on the academic level of students, which could remain unchanged.

– Flattening social differences

But academic level is not everything. It is certainly not the only reason that may lead to the imposition of wearing a uniform. Student well-being and school climate are also key, even if they do not lead to any change in academic achievement. It is often assumed that wearing a uniform flattens social inequalities by erasing visible signs of wealth. From this standpoint, international reports confirm the validity of this hypothesis, adding that this provides renewed reassurance to families, who are less susceptible to disagreements over the choice of clothing. Self-esteem among students from less advantaged backgrounds benefits from a unified environment. Surveys indicate a flattening of perceived social inequalities.

Certainly, experimentation remains the right strategy. With a key question: What criteria should be used to make the decision?

We can hope that reducing visible inequality (for example through ostentatious clothing worn by young people from affluent families) will moderate rivalries so that bullying in schools is significantly reduced. Unfortunately, this is not what the data shows. The level of harassment remains about the same, with or without uniform.

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Should we promote uniforms or not? If the goal is to improve academic achievement, this is unlikely to be helpful. Conversely, if it is about improving student well-being and the climate within institutions, improvements are possible but may still be insufficient. In any case, experimentation is definitely the right strategy. With the crucial question of the criteria used for the report: because many factors will also be talked about, which are not often mentioned in the media (freedom of belief, social image of the school, promotion of gender equality, etc.).