Uniforms are about vital factors: school spirit and discipline

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am

With the new school year now well under way, let us consider the utility of requiring pupils to wear a school uniform, reviewing what the objectives are and to what extent, if any, those objectives are being met.

All good schools are the same; their pupils are smartly and appropriately turned out, displaying pride in their school uniform as well as self-respect.

However, to judge from some of the sights seen on Hong Kong's streets, the point of wearing a school uniform seems to be completely lost on some students. That means it is apparently also lost on their parents, and lost as well on the responsible staff of their schools.

It is sometimes said that a school uniform provides an egalitarian mode of attire. The better-off youngsters wear exactly the same as children from poorer families. Thus the impecunious need not look any poorer than their richer classmates.

This is a fine idea, though the flaunting of expensive accessories, such as watches, mobile phones and school bags, does rather detract from that desired equality of attire - and probably reflects more accurately the differing parental income levels.

A team spirit can certainly be inculcated by a common mode of dress. That is no bad thing, but it must be remembered that such a desirable team spirit does not just drop from the sky, it needs to be encouraged and developed in other ways, as well. Students can be taught the meaning behind the school badge, and to respect it.

What does a slovenly uniform say about a school, and about the pupils' attitude to their school?

Then there is the fact that some fee-charging educational operations inflict inappropriate uniforms on their very young charges as a form of commercial branding. I am thinking of those playschools where tiny tots of three and four are seen dolled-up in formal jackets and bow ties. Being trussed up in such absurdly restrictive adult-style outfits must surely hinder their freedom of movement when playing.

Perhaps the most important consideration is the connection between discipline and the wearing of uniforms. It is no accident that the world's disciplined services (police, army, customs and so on) are uniformed organisations.

To outside observers, it sometimes seems that school discipline here is taken too far in some areas - such as the morning's regimental lining up in the school playground (and that, at a militarily-early hour) before entering the school building.

But disciplined organisations not only demand a uniform, they also ensure that the uniform requirements of turnout are met.

Here it is that the problems of some Hong Kong schools are shown up. For there is little point in any school demanding that their pupils wear a so-called uniform, when apparently almost anything goes; shirt tails flapping out, unbuttoned shirts, trousers with frayed hems because they scrape the ground as the wearer chooses hipster styles, all manner of inappropriate headgear and jewellery, hip-hop visions of very baggy trousers from which even the underclothes are visible, untied school ties and ultra-mini skirts.

All these variations, and more, can be seen worn by some Hong Kong pupils.

My own view is that in Hong Kong's generally warm and humid climate, to copy the school uniform styles of northern Europe (ties, blazers etc) is really not at all appropriate and must lead to much discomfort. Let us remember that many parts of local schools are not air-conditioned.

That is not to say that a more appropriate school outfit for a tropical country cannot be found. In some of the better schools here, the smart cotton version of the cheongsam meets both cultural and climatic considerations.

And if foreign styles of attire must be copied here (and why must they?), then at least we should get it right. In Europe, it is unusual for girls to be required to wear ties.

In some rather expensive private schools in Hong Kong, such as the international schools, there is a no-uniform policy. Interestingly, there the students apparently concoct a common uniform of their own design, consisting of colourful T-shirts or polo shirts and jeans, the same for boys and girls.

In other words, many of these youngsters impose their own dress codes on themselves. It seems that few want to be different in what they wear for school.

Where a schoolchild is sent to school wearing dishevelled clothes, does this not indicate a lack of parental concern? An un-ironed shirt, scuffed shoes, unclean white trousers or pinafore dress and the like indicate, at the very least, a couldn't-care-less attitude on the part of the parents, as well as from the students.

Possibly it is such careless parents who send their children off to school without making sure they have eaten breakfast. Both types of parental neglect are to be much regretted. As, also, is a school's indifference to such scruffy attire.

What is clearly needed is a uniform standard of school attire, with the school authorities enforcing that in a fair way.

Let us in future see Hong Kong's school pupils in a more comfortable uniform, eschewing ties - but one in which the school authorities take a more active interest in keeping up common but reasonable standards of dress in all their charges.

That could lead to an enhanced school spirit and better school discipline, and in the end these two vital factors can help the pupils get the very best from their long years spent at school in Hong Kong.

Paul Surtees is a Hong-Kong based commentator who went to school in Britain.