Graduation and school uniforms

Stabroek News
September 26, 1999

While the main controversy about school uniform has centred on the footwear worn by students in schools, a significant measure relating to clothing recently introduced by the Education Ministry has gone unremarked. This is the requirement that all pupils appear at graduations in their school uniform. No longer will little six-year-olds, for example, have their passage to the primary school marked by a ceremony which necessitates them being kitted out in gowns and mortar boards.

One wonders why these guidelines were not instituted before. Apart from the absurdity of attiring small children in wear which traditionally has been associated with graduating from a university, there was the matter of the expense. On some estimates a parent might be expected to fork out several thousand dollars just for the luxury of a one-off graduation exercise lasting perhaps two or three hours. In the more prestigious schools the costs were usually higher than in those which were perceived as having a lower status. For those parents who had more than one child graduating from nursery, primary or secondary school, the burden must have been especially onerous.

Parents had been complaining for some time about graduations, but they had never made any move to try and boycott them, for instance, or to confront the problem in an organized way. The graduation style, borrowed from the United States, first entered Guyana through the agency of a private school, and soon spread to the public schools. It was, from the outset, nothing but affectation, since it had no basis in local school tradition.

The purpose of school uniform has always been a levelling one in the first instance, and in the second, an inducement to the development of a school's esprit de corps. It fulfils a subsidiary function too in encouraging discipline. Certainly at graduation and on other public occasions staff should insist that students appear in the traditional garb to reinforce the school ethos. The Minister in interviews has emphasized the levelling function of uniforms, a probably not misplaced concern in these times of the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. In fact, the recent discussions about footwear arose within the context of the importance of enforcing a strict dress code in the schools.

While the students, no doubt, will resist, there is a great deal to be said for applying the rules about school uniform with some stringency - at least from the start of the new school year in 2000. Attending school is not about displays of conspicuous consumption; it is mostly about acquiring an education. If those who now spend exorbitant sums on accessories for school or academic gowns, took some of that money and spent it on books instead, they would be doing their offspring a huge favour. In the first place, they would be placing a proper emphasis on learning, and in the second, they would be making a far more meaningful investment in the child's future. The moral of the story is that books, not boots or gowns or mortar boards, do a scholar make.

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