School uniform and reform: lines of conflict | Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”

School uniform and reform: lines of conflict

For September 2018 the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine plans a full-scale launch of the educational reform. The key strategic direction of school reform, as follows from the statements of ministerial officials, comments of experts and teachers — to place the child in the spotlight. This means that the process of obtaining the education should become the most comfortable for pupils. One of the important indicators of comfort is the elimination of all forms of illicit coercion in school. One of its vectors that still remains is the administrative-compulsory introduction of the school uniform. Obviously, the adoption of the new law on education, the change in the philosophy of school education and the activation of the parental public in the direction of countering the arbitrariness of the school should remove the sharpness of this problem. However, as analysis of publications in parents’ groups in social networks, observations and communication with parents of schoolchildren show, the question remains topical and the level of parents’ dissatisfaction is high.

The analysis of the content of publications for August 2018 in the group “Parents SOS” in “Facebook”, which has more than 102,000 participants, shows that the issue of the school uniform ranks third in the line of the relevant subjects after school fees and bullying. Moreover, the compulsion to wear a uniform many parents also justifiably regard as an element of the teachers’ bullying.In just 10 days in August 2018, the group members shared 4 sufficiently substantive publications, whose authors rationally, psychologically or sarcastically ironically substantiate the inexpediency of the school uniform in modern conditions. A large number of comments indicate that the parents are concerned by this problem. Analysis of the comments’ content and the number of “likes” that received publications and comments “against” and “for” the school uniform allows to get a general idea of ​​the parental attitude to the school uniform imposition. During this period publications and comments against the form received 1252 “likes”, and neutral-positive – 68. The ratio is 18:1. Certainly, such a calculation can not be considered as a representative study. However, it gives a general idea of ​​the parents’ attitude to the problem. We have already investigated the question of introducing the school form in the value aspect, but the interest of the parental public and the active search for ways to counteract the school stereotypes of equality indicates the expediency of analyzing the problem in the context of the ideology of school reform.

What does the content of parents’ publication indicate?

The study of the content of parental publications and comments gives grounds for some optimistic conclusions.

  • Most parents do not share the idea of equality in its school interpretation with an emphasis on clothing. They not only point to modern attributes of inequality in the form of gadgets and other benefits, but also do not show an approving attitude towards the school’s implementation of the function of ensuring social equality.
  • The essence of the problem being discussed is not whether to retain or abolish the school uniform, but how to counteract the school in an attempt to keep the form in spite of the will of parents and pupils.
  • More and more parents pay attention to the psychological damage of children from depressive or monotonous clothes, point to the restriction of freedom of expression for the artificial planting of collectivism.
  • The problem of the school form parents are trying to consider in the legal perspective. First, they are trying to find out is it being implemented legitimately. Secondly, they seek legal means to prevent or oppose coercion in relation to the form.
  • Much more often, even if to compare with a previous year, parents raise the issue of equality of rights: why teachers are not limited in the right to freely choose the style and color range of clothing, but pupils are, and by the will of teachers. For the publication on the introduction of the mandatory form for teachers, which one of the participants shared in the group, most of the parents reacted ironically. However, this issue has a clearly expressed value-ideological and legal aspects. After all, in democratic states and modern corporations laws and regulations are applied to all citizens or members of the corporation. Only the Ukrainian school retains privileged and oppressed groups. And the fact that some parents are already considering the issue of school uniform in the context of legal equality/inequality of teachers and students is encouraging.
  • Parents positively perceive the basic idea of the school reform on the convenience and comfort of the school environment for students. Accordingly, it is quite logical to raise questions about who can determine what clothes are comfortable for pupils, if not pupils and parents themselves, and why the school administration takes on this “hard and ungrateful work”.
  • Some of the teachers’ comments are also aimed at supporting the free style of school clothes, which indicates an adequate understanding of the situation and the problem by a certain part of the teachers.

To crush “the new Ukrainian school” with “sovok”

Battles about the school uniform raise the question of how to be with future first-graders who will come to “the new Ukrainian school”. After all, everything will be changed in a new way – the methods of teaching, the organization of the learning space, aimed at the development of creativity, individuality. Then the form does not fit into the ideology of the “new school”. If you do not require a form from first-graders, then from other pupils it is not logical to demand it. Or let them study in the “old” school? The answer can be heard at school markets. In shopping centers of Kharkov, parents “with a kindly quiet word” comment on the purchase of a form for the future first-graders. Indicative case: in the market “Barabashovo” a woman asked the sellers if there is a “soviet” form (blue dress with a white apron) of a small size. To the question “why do you need it?”, the woman frowned, saying that the school said to come to the feast of the first bell dressed in this way.

Let’s try to find out how compatible is the idea of a compulsory school uniform with the main goals of educational reform. The strategic goal of the reform is to make education high-quality, and the process of obtaining it a comfortable one, to turn the school into an institution of civil society. It is in such a school that applicants for education must learn to be a subject of power. Ideologists of the reform note its focus on the applicants and their interests, which should be the focus of those who provide services. Thus, the reform should bring the Ukrainian education closer to the European one. Regarding our specific issue, it should be noted that there is no school uniform in the EU countries. It is introduced only in some prestigious British educational institutions as a sign of belonging to a certain corporate institution. At the same time, not at the behest of the administration, but at the decision of parents and pupils. Here, at once, questions arise about the prestige and image of those Ukrainian schools that make titanic efforts to get pupils to wear uniforms, as well as ways and mechanisms to make such decisions.

In July and again in August 2018 in the group “Parents SOS” the participants published a letter from the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine with a response to the inquiry of the NGO “Kiev City Organization “Parents SOS”. It notes that “the introduction of the school uniform is governed by the school’s statute and internal regulations, which are developed by the institution itself”. However, this did not reduce the severity of the problem. The reference to Article 28 of the Law of Ukraine “On Education”, according to which the participants of the educational process have the right directly and through the self-government bodies to decide the issues of organizing and providing the educational process, also so far judging by the contents of the publications did not push parents to an effective way of solving the problem. Therefore, obviously, there is a need to deeply understand the essence of this answer.

The new Law of Ukraine “On Education”, in fact, provides the educational institutions with autonomy in solving a number of issues. In this letter, under the signature of the Deputy Minister, an explanation is given in accordance with the law and the main strategic directions of the educational reform. However, here are the key questions: What are the school statute and internal regulations – dogma or rationale for the effective resolution of specific problems? Who should accept and approve them? The logic of educational reform indicates that rules and statutes should be accepted with the participation of applicants for educational services. This is also mentioned in the Ministry’s letter. That is, in the school in which the child is in the center of attention, only the pupils and their parents should decide whether they need a school uniform or not. Who, except for the persons themselves, can decide what clothes are comfortable for them? Today, we have an absurd situation in which the regulations on the school uniform are taken by the administration, through “breaking through the knee” are legitimized at a meeting of the purely nominal school council and are enforced compulsorily. Contrary to the strategy of reform, law and common sense.

In their demands, school administrations sometimes refer to the “naphthalene” Decree of the President of Ukraine No. 417/96 of June 12, 1996 and the relevant Cabinet of Ministers decree of August 22, 1996. The petition to cancel the decree did not gain the required number of votes. Therefore, formally, it remains in force. There is its own absurdity as well. Firstly, the decree is not only obsolete, but also directly contradicts the strategy of school reform and the new Law “On Education”. A letter of reply from the Ministry of Education of Ukraine is a direct confirmation of this. Secondly, the recognition of obsolete norms as invalid is a purely technical matter. After the adoption of the new Law on Education, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine was to send a letter to the President of Ukraine explaining the need to declare the decree null and void. This does not require a petition. In addition, so far we have a purely nominal petition mechanism.

Ideologists of the school reform are trying to adapt a number of elements of the Finnish school system. Government officials signed a number of agreements on assistance in the implementation of the reform with Finnish institutions. But the values of freedom and human rights, the features of the culture of citizenship can not be imposed on “Soviet” stereotypes and subordinate culture. Therefore, without understanding the philosophy of the Finnish and European education systems, the fate of the “Bologna system” will undergo a school reform, the result of which the university professors “respectfully” called “blockhead’s”.

Corporate uniform or corporate business?

Some gymnasiums and lyceums introduce their own student form. We visited one of the Kharkov shops of such a corporate school uniform on Sumskaya street. Things that look more or less acceptable in the photo, in fact, turned out to be very unattractive. The price is at least two times higher than for things of similar quality in the clothing market. The proposed set of school uniform costs 2500 – 3000 UAH. Mothers complain about the poor quality of the shirt at a cost of 449 UAH, which after the second wash turns into a rag. Other components are also not better. The dress is dark blue, monophonic, looks depressing. On the question of whether, with the consent of parents, the school uniform was introduced and its models were developed, the answers sound skeptical-sarcastic. But the other fact is surprising. Parents who are not satisfied with the coercion to purchase the form, the ratio of its price and quality, are most indignant that the form is not available (the seller explains that the fabrics are “stuck” at the customs, so the manufacturer does not have time to sew), and from September 1 it is necessary to come to school in uniform. The first emotional reaction: why not introduce the same form for teachers? After all, they are also members of the group and bearers of corporate culture, and the principle of equality of rights and opportunities will be realized. And there also a appeared the question about the possible business component of such a corporate culture.

Conclusions and recommendations

The introduction of the school uniform forcibly directly contradicts the basic democratic values and rights of the child, the school reform strategy and the norms of the Law of Ukraine “On Education”.

The activity of the parental public in the discussion of the issue and the search for ways to counteract the forced introduction of the school uniform testifies to the activation of the process of the parents’ transition from the role of the object of the authority of the school administration and the silent sponsor of the school to the role of a full participant in decision-making process.

Attempts of the school administrations to preserve the form by order and to force even first-graders to wear it testify to the dominance of “soviet” stereotypes, the lack of understanding or categorical rejection of the goals and objectives of school reform.

The explanation in the letter of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine that “the introduction of the school uniform is governed by the school’s statute and internal regulations, which are developed by the institution itself” does not mean that the statute and rules are adopted by the administration, although in the realities this is true. To make decisions, it is necessary to establish an effective institution of school self-government. From the solution of the issue of school clothes, it is possible to begin formation of real self-government in the school and the development of civic qualities among the participants of the educational process.

The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine should implement all necessary measures to abolish normative acts that contradict the Law of Ukraine “On Education”. There is also a need for a broader information campaign to explain the strategy of school reform, in particular, regarding its compliance with the introduction of the school uniform. It seems appropriate to send a letter from the Ministry of Education of Ukraine to general educational institutions with recommendations on possible mechanisms and a clear prohibition of the administrative-mandative introduction of the school uniform.

The orientation towards convenience for pupils, their physiological and psychological comfort and positive mood, democratic values and human rights indicates the expediency of abandoning the school uniform. The most acceptable is a free form of clothing. It is possible to establish clear limitations as a result of a “social contract” within the framework of a particular school. After all, in a democratic state the principle operates: “Everything that is not directly prohibited by law is allowed”.

The second acceptable option may be the introduction of a corporate dress code, common for all members of the corporate institution – pupils, teachers and school employees.

Pupils and parents who are obliged by school administrators to a school uniform, may reasonably require the introduction of a form for teachers. After all, the key principle of democracy is equality of rights and opportunities. And the corporate culture and image of the school, which teachers often like to refer to, also require some rules for everyone. Therefore, from irony, it is worth turning to arguments from the point of view of rights and law.

The only legitimate way the form can be introduced is the school plebiscite. Since the decision concerns pupils and aims to “create a comfortable environment for them,” then pupils and their parents should make it. The voice of the administration and teachers should be consultative, if it is only a form for pupils. If it is a question of form for both pupils and teachers, then teachers, pupils and parents become full participants in the plebiscite. There are two ways to make a decision. 1. School referendum. 2. Voting in classes with protocol fixation of results and schoolwide voting, in which delegates from classes represent a decision of their class, adopted by a majority vote.

Advantages of this way are obvious:

  • the school will demonstrate truly democratic decision-making, understanding and support of the school reform strategy;
  • pupils and parents will demonstrate the ability to operate as subjects and not objects of power;
  • this step will become a real practical lesson in the democracy learning process and in the formation of civil competence for all participants of the educational process.

And it is even more probable that the administration and teachers will generally lose the desire to make pupils wear school uniforms, especially if the rule applies to them.

Today the formula of the corporate school uniform looks abnormal: demonstration of prestige = forced-voluntary introduction + low quality + high price + absense of choice + restriction of pupils’ rights + reproduction of school group inequality + upbringing of the subject culture. If the school really has attributes of prestige, and not only in the statements of teachers, but also in the minds of pupils, it is worthwhile for them to offer to choose ways of demonstrating their prestige by pupils. They have enough creativity, if the school uniform has not destroyed it yet.

Provided that the school uniform is being introduced at the behest of parents, monopoly should be avoided. It is also advisable to develop only basic models of clothing. Parents should reserve the right to modify them as it is convenient for the child to make clothes individually from those fabrics that meet their quality criteria. A key reference point is the convenience for pupils and parents, the choice, and not the job provision for a clothing manufacturer. Also, one should not forget about the main principle of corporate culture and image: formal and informal requirements are applied to all members of the corporation. In this version, our formula will take a completely different form: legitimate implementation + voluntary consent to implement jointly taken decisions + exercise of the right of choice + respect for the principle of equality of rights + education of activist civil culture = a positive image of the institution.

Svetlana Topalova

Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”

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