The Illogic of School Uniforms

  • Written by  Paul Willcocks

I’ve come up with a clever, no-cost way to reduce poverty and increase school attendance in Honduras. Get rid of school uniforms. The uniforms -- white dress shirts, navy blue pants or skirt, black shoes and white socks -- are mandatory in public schools. Teachers are quite crabby about it, to the point of telling kids to stay home if they aren’t dressed in the right kit. For many parents, the costs are huge. Some children don’t go to school because they don’t have the right clothes. It’s getting worse. The government’s latest tax increases took the sales tax from 12 percent to 15 percent. It also applied the tax to items that had been exempt -- including school uniforms.

La Prensa  reported on the issue [of school uniforms] last week and quoted typical prices for school uniforms -- US$6.50 for pants, US$7 for shirts, US$12 for leather shoes. (Which, based on the experience outfitting the kids at the Angelitos orphanage in Copán Ruinas, will last about as long as you would expect a pair of US$12 shoes to last.)


So, figuring two sets of clothes (one to wash) and three school-age kids, estimate US$120 for the uniforms. That’s before backpacks, notebooks and all the other things on the mandatory supply list that teachers send home. That’s a lot of money in a country where 74 percent of the population lives in poverty and 47 percent in extreme poverty.


I'm acquainted with a woman with two school-age children, and little steady employment. She worked for 12 hours cleaning and plucking chickens one day last week, and was paid US$5. That’s not atypical. For her, school uniforms and supplies and the fees levied through the year are a huge challenge. Get rid of the uniforms, and poor families have more money to spend on things they need and one less reason to keep children home from school.


I can’t think of any good argument for the uniforms. It’s not as if poor children will be singled out for having bad clothes. Almost everyone is poor. (And people with any money send their children to private schools.) And blurring individual differences isn’t necessarily such a great idea. In fact, Honduran schools would do well to put a lot more emphasis on individuality and creativity and a lot less on rote learning.


Schools are generally dismal. An international test of math and science knowledge in 45 countries found Honduran students ranked at the bottom, with South Africa and Botswana. Children here aren’t less intelligent. But they don’t learn much, for a variety of reasons. In the US, 68 percent of students performed at the intermediate level in the math tests; in Chile, 23 per cent. In Honduras, four percent. When one in 25 students is doing okay in math, a country has a bleak future.


I admit to a strong anti-uniform bias. I went to public schools, but did my final year in a Quebec public high school where grey flannels, white shirt, tie and blazer were required. The pants itched. The costume had nothing to do with our education. It seemed mostly like a chance for those with power to demonstrate it by telling other people what they must wear. Letting Honduran kids come to school in whatever they have to wear simply makes sense. Any barrier to education hurts kids, families and the country. And uniforms are a barrier.


The other interesting aspect is that Honduran parents put up with all this. They don’t, generally, show up at the school and insist that their children be allowed to attend in flip flops instead of leather shoes. They don’t demand better from the schools. The failure rate is extremely high, but parents don’t demand to know why their children didn’t learn enough to advance to the next grade.


My hope is that Paul’s Law will abolish school uniforms in Honduras. My best guess is that parents would save more than US$40 million a year, with most of the benefits going to poor families. More children would be in school. And a small blow would be struck to the culture of conformismo. (1/20/14) (photo courtesy Internet)


altNote: The author is a former journalist from Canada. He currently lives in the town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and volunteers with Cuso International, a Canadian development agency that matches skilled professionals to organizations in developing countries. He writes a blog called Paying Attention.



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