Class war begins as US discovers the school uniform

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The Independent US

When Americans conjure up a picture of Britain, the sight of children in school uniform figures right up there with foggy mornings, village churches and Big Ben. Soon, though, there could be just as many identically dressed children at school gates in the US.

When Americans conjure up a picture of Britain, the sight of children in school uniform figures right up there with foggy mornings, village churches and Big Ben. Soon, though, there could be just as many identically dressed children at school gates in the US.

School district after school district is voting to put its pupils in uniform. Last week, in the biggest boost to the trend so far, the city of Philadelphia - the fifth largest school district in the country - voted to make uniforms compulsory for all its 217,000 pupils, starting now. It is left to the individual school to select the colours and actual items of clothing, but the principle has been accepted city-wide.

Until recently, the only school uniforms in America were at the élite private academies attended by the children of privilege. They were as class-defining and expensive as uniforms at Britain's most prestigious public schools. But over the past six years, an increasing number of American public - that is, state-funded - schools have adopted a uniform policy, and many more are considering it.

Already, some 80 per cent of Chicago public schools require uniforms, as do more than 60 per cent of schools in Miami, and half in New York City. Here the decision to impose uniforms is left mostly to the school and, within the school, the wearing of uniform may be voluntary.

Philadelphia is the first big city to make uniforms obligatory in all its schools. But in all these urban areas, the majority of pupils in the state-funded system are black or Hispanic, and not well-off. The majority-white schools are all in the suburbs.

Like other districts adopting the policy, Philadelphia has stipulated that the clothes chosen by the schools are not restricted to one brand name, and are widely available at reasonable prices. Mostly, the requirements are generic: khaki trousers or shorts, dark blue shirts or sweatshirts, and a particular style or colour of shoe would be typical, the whole outfit bought at a chain store such as K-Mart for less than $50 (£35).

The vote in the Philadelphia school district was overwhelmingly in favour of uniforms, despite fierce objections from senior pupils and some parents. Placards claimed: "School uniforms kill creativity." Uniforms restricted prized American freedoms, they said, and left pupils unprepared for the world beyond school, where competition - including in appearance - cannot be avoided. Some warned that uniform inspections would waste valuable teaching time, and discipline problems would multiply if staff punished pupils for dress violations.

But other parents, backed by a majority of teachers, prevailed. They spoke of the social competition in class over who had the latest designer labels, the overlong baggy jeans worn by some boys which identified them as gang members, and the provocative tops and skirts increasingly favoured by pre-teen girls. School board members cited the experience of other schools where uniforms appeared to have fostered, if not necessarily higher marks, then an atmosphere more conducive to learning.

The school districts that pioneered uniforms - Long Beach in California was the first - found themselves challenged with lawsuits by a minority of unhappy parents, and the advantages of uniforms are not universally accepted. A 1998 study by a team at Notre Dame University in Indiana, much cited by opponents, found no evidence that uniforms contributed to a rise in academic standards. But they could provide "a visible and public symbol of commitment to school improvement and reform".

And in city and suburb alike, it is the social, rather than academic, aspect that seems to be spurring the fresh rush into uniform. In the inner city, school authorities hope identical dress will push gang allegiance and competitive extrav- agance off school premises. In the suburbs, there is the vision of Columbine High, where endemic cliquishness was expressed partly in dress, and helped to drive pupils to kill.

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