Monday, September 25, 2006

School uniforms: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Warning to our most excellent readers outside of Jakarta: the following posting is totally local in nature and reflects years of internal wrangling and debate at JIS. Read further at your own peril.

My 8th grader has sworn she'll divorce me as a parent if I go down the path on which I'm about to embark. But I can't help myself -- and she's to poor to realistically consider independence. So here goes nothing....

Anyone thought about uniforms lately? I have, for two reasons.

First, a New York Times article, "Do Clothes Make the Student?" explored the issue earlier this month. The article notes that many public schools are moving to uniforms, despite the dearth of research that supports that shift.

But, the Times asks, does research really matter on the subject of uniforms? Shouldn't schools consider factors that may not be quantifiable throught research?

That brings me to the second reason I've been thinking about uniforms lately: the JIS School Council's "Owner Perception Audit" last year, which revealed a general impression among our school community that JIS lacks a shared sense of culture and values. (Click here for the JIS website, then click "ParentNet" and log on. You'll find the "Owner Perception Audit" report under the "Council" section.)

See where I'm going with this?

Uniforms definitely have downsides (if you'd like a list of the 3,289 reasons uniforms stink, please see my daughter, who will tick them off through gritted teeth). But for a school like JIS, there are upsides that go beyond any potential academic implications.
  • Uniforms create a sense of community -- everyone belongs to the "team" in a tangible, visible way
  • Uniforms level the playing field between all economic and social groups
  • Uniforms take the focus off the external (the dress code, the bling, the style), and put the focus on the internal (the scholar, the artist, the sportsperson), where it belongs in an academic setting
  • Uniforms make parents' lives easier
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a blanket-supporter of uniforms. At the school where I used to teach, uniforms would never work. But they weren't necessary either. The student body, while not 100-percent homogenous, did share a relatively common set of values and a feeling of community, sharpened by the years spent together as students.

JIS is different. We're a transient community, with 1/3 of the student body turning over every year. Our students come from a bucket-load of countries -- and from many different traditions. We don't naturally share a culture or values.

In the past, JIS has raised the issue of uniforms by asking parents -- on its bi-annual questionnaire -- whether "uniforms would improve the educational experience" of our children. But maybe that's the wrong question.... Maybe we should be asking, instead, whether uniforms would improve the school climate and culture.

What do you think? Have you been at an international school with student uniforms? Could uniforms be one way to create a sense of shared culture?


At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this a vote? Mine would be yes, I would like to see the kids at JIS wearing school uniforms. I think the reasons for not having uniforms in the past have been blamed on security. But in my opinion that argument doesn't hold up as my blond headed kids would be a target no matter what they are wearing.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Thanks for your vote, anonymous!

I've heard the security argument as well, we can't ignore security as an issue here in Jakarta.

I'd like to know how schools like the British International School and the Australian International School -- both of which use school uniforms -- have reconciled security concerns with the upsides of uniforms. Anyone know? It might give JIS some insight into the subject.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JIS does not 33% student turn over every year,.. Your data is wrong.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

If I'm wrong, I stand corrected. This is the information that's been shared verbally at many meetings at JIS, and it's all I have to go on. Anonymous @ 3:28, do you have different information you could share? That would be great! Thanks for your comment....

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My vote on uniforms has always been a firm YES. My question is this. Did BIS and AIS actually go through a "voting" for uniforms or did they just "go for it".Just curious. Seems there's a survey year after year after year, but nothing seems to move...

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Great question, Anonymous. I'd imagine that since uniforms are a common part of the homeland Australian and British school experience, there probably wasn't much discussion about the issue here in Indonesia. But that's just a guess.... Anyone know the history of AIS' and BIS' uniforms?

Thanks for your comment!

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

UPDATE (10/7): I've spoken now with several parents whose children attend the British International School. According to these parents, the uniforms have always been a part of BIS, and there wasn't ever, as far as they know, a vote. I'm still digging around on AIS....


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