[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
What's in a school uniform?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Absolutely Fabulous characters Patsy and Edina in a school 'flashback' sequence
Generations of British schoolchildren have been marshalled into uniform
Love it or loathe it, school uniform is a part of growing up for countless children around the world.

But a suggestion that it should be made compulsory in German schools has sparked fierce debate.

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries put forward the idea after two Muslim girls were expelled from a school in Bonn for wearing burkas.

A national school uniform was a "simple solution" to prevent such problems in the future and mask the differences between rich and poor, she said.

For many, however, school uniform is irretrievably tainted by its association with the Nazi era and Hitler Youth.

So what do school uniforms represent in other parts of the world?

Prussian model

In Japan, boys in secondary school wear an outfit modelled on 19th Century Prussian army uniforms. Called the gakuran, it consists of a dark jacket with stand-up collar and buttons down the front, worn with trousers.

Japanese schoolgirls in sailor fuku (picture courtesy of Japan National Tourist Organisation)
Japanese schoolgirls' sailor dresses are modelled on naval uniforms

Girls, on the other hand, wear a dress called the sailor fuku, based on European naval uniforms.

But as Christopher Hood, director of Cardiff University's Japanese Studies Centre, points out, the designs have nothing to do with Japan's own military past.

Rather, they date from the establishment of the formal education system in the 1870s, when Japan looked to Germany, France and Britain for ideas.

They cost parents often what they cannot afford
Susan Nkingyangi
Unesco education adviser

Interest in school uniform is strong in Japan, he adds, with fashion parades to show off different schools' latest twist on the designs. Even characters in manga, or cartoons, are often dressed in gakuran.

And, as in many countries, uniform policy is strictly adhered to.

"There's a set length for skirts and teachers would take out tape measures to check," Dr Hood told the BBC News website. "Of course kids in Japan, like everywhere, look for ways to bend the rules."

Religious issue

Within Europe, Britain has long been viewed as the country of school uniform.

Shabina Begum
Shabina Begum wanted to wear a full-length jilbab gown to school

Generations of parents have marshalled children into shirts and ties, blazers and oddly-shaped hats.

A recent legal case took the issue of school uniform into different territory, with student Shabina Begum fighting a school in Luton for the right to wear a jilbab, a traditional Muslim gown.

Although the House of Lords eventually ruled in favour of the school, there is little doubt the issue of how to accommodate religious beliefs with school uniform policy will flare up again.

Meanwhile in France, a law passed in 2004 banning Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in French state schools remains contentious.

Unifying uniform

For children in many African countries, school uniform can be a source of pride, a reminder of a colonial past - or a huge financial burden.

School children on a truck in Uganda, taken by BBC News website reader Alan Magness
Some parents in Africa find the cost of uniform a heavy burden

Unesco education adviser Susan Nkingyangi, based in Kenya, says the introduction of free primary education in some African countries has been a mixed blessing to the poorest families.

"The idea behind uniform was that it unifies students so rich and poor look alike. But in reality, they cost parents often what they cannot afford," she said.

Many children have only one uniform, she says, and that may be all the clothes they have. By the end of a year, the uniform is often "pretty shabby" and the child often subject to bullying.

'Incredibly naive'

Josef Kraus, president of the German teachers' union, called Ms Zypries "incredibly naive" to think introducing school uniform would resolve problems of religious integration and social discrimination in schools.

Speaking to Netzeitung website, he also warned that Germany had a "problematic tradition" as regards school uniforms.

A spokesman for the German justice ministry stressed Ms Zypries had made only a suggestion - and it was down to individual federal states to decide.

What she had in mind was not the British-style school uniform, he added, but rather a kind of standardised clothing "to strengthen school identity".

Emphatically there really is no difference between students who are forced to wear uniforms and those who are not
Prof David Brunsma

A violent history lies behind the recent emergence of school uniform in the US, says David Brunsma, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

School uniform began to appear in the 1980s, he says, when it was introduced in some urban areas to tackle the problem of "kids shooting each other over designer sneakers".

But it only really took off in 1996, when the then President Bill Clinton endorsed school uniforms in his annual State of the Union address as a way to stop what he called the "gang problem".

In less than a decade, school uniform has been adopted in about a quarter of all US primary schools and perhaps 12% of secondary schools, Prof Brunsma says.

"People were arguing that it would level economic inequalities... and create an atmosphere in school where students would feel part of something bigger than themselves," he said.

However, 10 years of research have shown that "emphatically there really is no difference between students who are forced to wear uniforms and those who are not".

"In fact I've found some very small but significant negative findings on academic achievement," he concludes.

It's a school report Germany may be well advised to study.

School wins Muslim dress appeal
22 Mar 06 |  Education
France stands firm on scarf ban
08 Jul 04 |  Europe
Headscarves in the headlines
10 Feb 04 |  Europe


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific