Back To School: Where’s My School Uniform?

The summer holiday is once more nearly over and in a matter of weeks a new school year begins here in the Netherlands. It’s the time of year when I am starkly reminded that I am a British expat and my school days are very different to those of my three sons.

At this point in my summer holiday my mum, brother and I would be heading to the local shop that stocked our school uniforms, somewhere like the department store Clements on Watford High Street, or British Home Stores. We’d be combing the store armed with a list supplied by school, all the items we were required to wear over the course of our school year: white blouses or shirts, short sleeved for summer and long sleeved for winter; a grey skirt or trousers and grey shorts for summer or a yellow and white checked summer dress for the girls; a grey cardigan or jumper; and the piece de resistance our yellow, almost gold coloured tie. And then of course there were our gym outfits to buy too. When we moved to secondary school our uniform changed colour to maroon but the end of the summer holiday ritual remained the same.

School uniform: a British thing for sure
School uniforms: a British thing for sure!

However, it is not a ritual I need to go through with my own children. Dutch school children do not wear school uniforms. They wear whatever they like. There is no scurrying around the shops during school holidays to get the necessary supply of school clothes for the year. It is simply a case of making sure my eldest has sports clothes without holes for his gym classes.

Every September my Facebook timeline spills over with pictures posted by my British friends of their children wearing their school uniforms for the very first time. It’s a photo I don’t have. I don’t have those ‘first day of school’ photos of my two eldest sons in their crisp, stiff school uniforms. We have no first day of school photos with an uncomfortable smile because of a collar and a tie that feels peculiar to a child who has yet to turn five.

School uniforms are just not commonplace in the Netherlands. The only place I have seen them worn is the British School in the Netherlands, highlighting just how much wearing a school uniform really is traditional British. An OFT report cites that 79% of junior schools in Britain has a compulsory school uniform, when you get to secondary school this rises to 98%. In short, if you go to school in Britain there is a good chance you’ll be wearing a school uniform.

School uniforms in Britain form the basis of a hotly contested political debate. Michael Gove, the former Education secretary, believed that uniforms in schools are beneficial and that the wearing of blazers and ties contribute to school success. He stated that schools with uniforms have better results.

School uniform supporters say that a uniform helps pupils identify with their school and feel part of a school community; a uniform evokes pride in pupils and encourages discipline; it dissolves social equalities (because clothes are the same regardless of background) and therefore reduces the chances of bullying.

Those against the idea of school uniforms say they are a means of exerting power and control over kids. One reason cited to abolish school uniforms is to allow teachers to spend their time teaching rather than ensuring that children adhere to school uniform rules.

American academic (school uniforms are gaining popularity in the US), David Brunsma, concluded after eight years of research that school uniforms make no difference whatsoever to the standard of schools or their results.

So, love them or loath them, whether they have a positive effect or not, school uniforms are a British thing many other countries across the globe have seen no reason to adopt. And that includes the country I now call home, the one I am raising my three Dutch boys in.

I grew up wearing a school uniform and somewhere in my parent’s photo archives there is a picture of me on my first day of school, proudly parading my brand new uniform. I will have no such photo in my photo archive – but I hope one day my sons will see that photo and learn something about my British school days.

These little changes, these breaks with my own cultural traditions, are part and parcel of expat life. It’s a small sacrifice to make to raise little multicultural people.

What school traditions, or customs have you broken with because of raising children in a different culture or country than the one you went to school in?  Do your children wear school uniforms?

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Amanda van Mulligen

Freelance Writer
Amanda van Mulligen is a freelance writer. British born, she was whisked off to the Netherlands on a promise of a windmill wedding and now raises three sons with her Dutch husband in the east of the country. She writes about her Dutch life on her blog 'Turning Dutch' and on the topic of highly sensitive children at 'Happy Sensitive Kids'.

9 thoughts on “Back To School: Where’s My School Uniform?”

  1. Back in the US we didn’t have uniforms, here in Costa Rica we do… I love the fact that there isn’t a pile of clothes laying on the bedroom floor because my daughter couldn’t decide what to wear to school. 😀

  2. I hated school uniforms as a kid. The drab, dreary conformism that was supposed to make us all equal and democratc. Not a bit of it. We all knew which kids had the best trousers and shoes, the PE class was full of the latest Adidas and Nikes if you had a bit of money, and there were brand names galore all over our bags.

    As a parent I see that school uniforms exist purely for the benefit of the schools and the parents, not the kids who lose a chance of being creative and expressing themselves.

    There are school uniforms in Brazil, but I would say the majority of schools still don’t have one. A few private schools have them, but it seems more an attempt at advertising and branding more than anything else.

    Needless to say, my wife and I have chosen a school that doesn’t have a uniform for our son.

    1. School uniforms are absolutely not for the benefit of school kids. However, my latest trip back to the UK opened my eyes about just how creative children can be with their school uniforms!!

  3. I love school uniforms – well, no. Let me rephrase. We had school uniforms as kids and they were awful but I was still very glad we had them. I haven’t grown less glad for school uniforms as a parent. That said, they don’t make nearly enough difference to be worth a hot and highly-polarised debate.

    I don’t buy the argument about policing of uniforms, since most schools I know of without uniforms still have dress codes.

    The only time I did protest was when we had a debate over whether it was fair for girls to be forced to wear short skirts for sports when they could perfectly well fit into boys’ shorts (also “uniform” shorts). I was one of the shorts-wearing protesters who were banned from PE for my feminist views (or maybe I just wasn’t particularly into sports). Afterwards they decided girls can choose shorts or skirts, and my only regret is I didn’t think of trying to start an equality-for-cross-dressers campaign on the tail of that.

  4. We didn’t have school uniform in my school but my kids have and up to now, that wasn’t a problem. As for the branded PE shoes: I observe the same thing here but my kids don’t bother. Same with jackets, backpacks etc. (in their school they don’t need to have the school backpack and can choose their own one). My kids are now 8 and 11 and I think that my son will soon realize that wearing uniform here in NL is not as common as in the UK : he’s going to senior school this year and will take public transport…
    Uniform is great for parents: no discussions about what to wear. At least if you have boys. Girls have more choice : dress, pinafore, trousers; jumper or cardigan… I must also say that British Schools or schools abroad that require uniform are less strict and have another type of uniform than in the UK. For example: our children don’t wear ties, no shirts or blouses and no jackets. In the last 20 years the uniform at our school changed a lot (and is still changing!) and the kids seem to like it so far. The PE skirt for girls is actually a skirt/short and girls are looking forward to wear them from year 3 upwards. This may change in the upper classes though. But I also know that some girls just wear the normal PE shorts and it’s not a problem. I guess all depends on how strict the uniform rules are in a school.

  5. My sons started wearing a modified school uniform when they started at their French international school in Chicago. It’s pretty easy – navy blue bottoms and a blue, white or red top (the French national colors). At first, I was skeptical about the uniform, but I quickly grew to love it. It makes getting ready so much easier in the morning, and I think the color-matched students look so adorable and professional, too.

  6. I’ve had all sort of uniforms, the kindergarten coverall, first years of primary in an alternative school in peru we had jeans and red shirt, then in the US we wore the checkered jumper thing with the white shirt inside, then in middle school I was lost, there was no uniform and my style choices were questionable to say the least, that lasted through the first years of high school, I then moved countries in the middle of the year and entered a school that was american but was wearing the traditional peruvian public school uniform (something about the kids not being able to be picked out in the street from what school they went to, fear or terrorists, kidnappings etc.) I got there in the middle of the year, could not find a uniform that fit me anywhere, that school was the only one in the country that let the girls wear pants (all the others you had to wear a skirt) so I managed to find a pair of pants that where two sizes to big and shirt that was one size too small. You can imagine what I looked like oh and I wore black Doc Martens instead of school shoes. jajajaja what a sight. The teachers kept complaining about my shirt because it was so short I couldn’t even tuck it in. The next year, the uniforms were finally changed into something more civil but the seniors were exempt from using them. I went to school in my pijamas almost every day that year, with my Doc Martens. My oldest daughter only wore a uniform for one year that she attended a parroquial small town school, apart from that its always been street clothes. My small ones now go to an Indonesian Montessori preschool that has a uniform but my oldest refuses to wear it and they are thankfully very linient.

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