Do school uniforms improve students’ behaviour or academic performance?

A few weeks ago Professor Jonathan Grant – director of the Policy Institute at King’s – got involved in a Twitter exchange on the benefits of school uniforms. This was prompted by frustrations with his daughters’ school apparent obsession with enforcing a school uniform policy at – in his view – the expense of focusing on the ‘core business of education’.  In sharing his concern with colleagues in the Policy Institute a debate ensued on ‘what is the evidence that school uniforms improve academic achievement and behaviour?’  Being an inquisitive team that never turns down a challenge, Research Assistant Rachel Hesketh looked at the evidence.  This is what she found… 

There is no shortage of theories on the relationship between the wearing of uniform and student outcomes such as behaviour and academic attainment. It has been suggested that uniforms foster feelings of collective spirit and pride in their school among pupils, improving behaviour. They are also claimed to contribute to a positive learning atmosphere where students are not distracted by appearance or victimised based on how they dress. But it also seems plausible that, by restricting freedom of expression, uniforms create an authoritarian environment that some students may resent and that time spent disciplining students for minor uniform infractions could detract from teaching and learning.

British politicians, at least, appear agreed on which side they come down on in the debate over the merits of uniform. During Ed Balls’ tenure as Education Secretary he wrote to all local authorities, urging for the adoption of smarter uniform policies, while Michael Gove’s beliefs about student dress code have never be described as liberal. Strict uniform policies have also been closely associated with the growth of academy schools under the last two governments, who almost without exception have taken a tough line on uniform.

Where is the hard evidence?

Theories abound, but hard evidence on the effectiveness of uniform-wearing is much scarcer, especially in the UK. The most commonly cited studies look at US uniform policies, where there is much greater variation between schools to exploit. But results have been diverse.

In the widely quoted (and equally widely criticised) Brunsma and Rockquemore study, no evidence of a relationship was found between uniform wearing and behavioural problems, substance use or attendance.  Despite this, the study reached the controversial conclusion that uniforms had a negative impact on academic test scores. Subsequent studies have reversed this finding by expanding the sample of schools used. In a more recent investigation, the authors concluded that while uniforms have no effect on behaviour or attainment at elementary school level, they may have a small positive effect on language scores and attendance in middle and high schools, especially among girls.

classroomLack of control

So why, for such an apparently simple question, are results so inconclusive? Due to the issue of causality, it has proved difficult to unpick exactly how school uniforms impact on other factors.  Furthermore, uniform policies are not assigned to schools at random so there is a high chance that results are biased.  For example, schools with pre-existing problems with student attainment and behaviour may be more likely to impose uniforms (or stricter uniform policies) in an effort to improve standards, biasing the impact of uniforms downwards. Conversely, high-performing schools may also be motivated to introduce or sharpen up their uniform as a way of signalling their pre-eminence to prospective parents and students and the wider community, imparting an upward bias. The reality is that there are numerous school and student specific factors related to both student outcomes and uniform policy, and any study seeking to establish a clear causal relationship must control for them all.

No clear link

The most conservative reading of the existing evidence (limited as it is) is that there is no clear causal relationship between wearing a uniform and doing better at school. More research in this area would be interesting and welcome, especially a closer focus on the UK – does a smarter or more strictly-enforced uniform policy reduce behaviour problems or improve exam results? The countless students across the country feeling aggrieved after a telling ­off for the wrong shoes, a wonky tie or a skirt deemed too short would be very interested to find out.

Rachel Hesketh is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute

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