School uniform: keeping up standards?

The second week of January saw the usual crowds of parents running between schools looking for places for their children - even in the schools which allocate places on the results of entrance exams written in May. Many were running between shops trying to equip children who have got school places with stationery and uniforms.

Some are begging for help to buy the uniforms without which their children will not be allowed into school. Many of those who buy uniforms are spending money on these uniforms that they really need to spend for urgent purchases, such as food for the children who remain at home.

The Ministry of Education gave an instruction in 1980 to the effect that no child was to be turned away from school because they didn’t have uniform.

That instruction has been repeated from time to time over the past 32 years, most recently, if I remember rightly, by our present Minister of Education. Zanu (PF) administrations were not consistent on the issue.

Soon after independence some people, especially headmasters and members of the new elite, objected that not requiring uniforms amounted to a “lowering of standards”. They seemed to rapidly absorb the notion of the recently-defeated racist regime that this was an undesirable tendency against which a bloody 14-year war had been waged.

There is an argument for school uniform as a social leveller. If uniforms are simple and reasonably priced, rich children are discouraged from making a display of their wealth, while poor children have an acceptable minimum they can satisfy. Even the elite St .Ignatius College, in its early years, before independence, tried to demand as little and as simple a uniform as possible, so as to be sure of not excluding any pupil for failure to meet the expense of a uniform. For some time, they did not include a blazer in the required uniform.

Nobody could accuse them of undermining academic standards, so this seems to suggest uniforms have nothing to do with academic standards. If pupils were to develop enough discipline to study seriously, one would expect them to be clean and neat, but a great variety of expensive uniform is not necessary.

Insisting, as even some high-density schools do, on things like uniform track suits, uniform jerseys and socks only makes the cost of schooling too high for many poor but able students. Public schools in the USA don’t demand any uniform. If they did, Abraham Lincoln would probably not have been able to become a lawyer, let alone President of the United States.

In India most school only ask boys to wear white shirt and shorts, and girls to wear a neat white dress; not even a school badge. India’s rapid economic growth would not be possible if Indian governments since they got independence from Britain had not striven to make education available to as many as possible. The older developed countries of Europe only achieved democracy and prosperity, with the national wealth being more fairly shared than it had been in earlier times when they made education compulsory and usually free.

It wasn’t only the leaders of the British Labour Party who owed their advancement since 1950 to a good education provided by the state, without all the status symbols so dear to the so-called “public schools”, which, in England, are the most expensive and exclusive private schools.

Margaret Thatcher is the daughter of a small shopkeeper who benefited from free secondary education and generous grants for university study. Without those, she could not have hoped to go to Oxford and would never have risen as she did in the Conservative party. She used the ladder provided by universal, state-provided education to climb the social scale – and then kicked the ladder away to prevent others from following her up into the realms of power.

She got power. She held on to it for about 11 years, but she destroyed far more than the education system. She brought British manufacturing industry, once the nation’s pride, so low that in Britain, just like Zimbabwe, you can hardly buy a spanner that isn’t made in China – and zhing zhong quality at that.

The rise and fall of the despised West is not just a story of colonial plunder, though that played its part. It is also a story of generations of struggle by working people for better conditions; a better way of life for themselves and a better future for their children. That would make an interesting and instructive subject for another article, but I’m afraid we have repeated most of their mistakes already.

The idea that one has achieved something by simply being in school and that one must advertise this status is one of the most pernicious errors we so diligently learned from our oppressors. It actually defeats the purpose of education, which is to help us, not only to accumulate wealth for ourselves, but to serve our fellow citizens so as to create a better life for all of us.

A practical postscript: All this sounds very well, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a parent who wants to know what to do about a headmaster who sends their child home for not having full uniform. I would suggest parents (as many of them as possible) write to the Minister of Education with their complaints against specific headmasters.

Since we don’t have a working government, I can only suggest you send your letter through his political party. That is probably a more reliable route that trusting that anything will get through the war zone that calls itself a government of national unity. Nothing else is likely to work, so why not try this?

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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