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Alternate uniforms and public schools, how about no uniforms?

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JANUARY 25 — Which day of the school week is hottest?

I’m clueless but the ministry of education has a better inkling than common folks, and even the folks at the meteorological department, apparently. How so?

Minister Fadhlina Sidek announced the 2+2+1 rule last week, with an official circular impending.

One is itching to ask, why announce before the full set of rules pertaining to the changes are ready for circulation? It’s probably my low Madani affectation which inhibits me from immersing in the lovefest blanketing the nation with soundbites.

Anyhow, the minister announces.

Two days of the standard uniform, two days of sports attire and a day in extra-curricular uniform to conclude a school week.

But which days? And more so why so much introspection about school uniforms?

The second is a fair enough question.

Some countries have uniforms in their public schools, and others do not — United States being the prime example.

There are weighty arguments on both sides of the uniform and no uniform debate. They have lasted more than a century, and carry on because both philosophies are compelling.

But our ministry’s hybrid rule appears frustratingly middling, neither defeats the rigidity of uniforms nor embraces the freedoms casual attire in school offer.

The minister assured all stakeholders — parents, teachers, unions and education reform groups — were consulted.

This column is unconvinced that a considered decision was made factoring all input or students consulted or most importantly if the ministry led the consultation rather than trudged along and ended up with a rojak solution — not quite upsetting anyone but definitely not a progressive policy.

The decision brings two things to the fore, that uniforms as we know it are on the way out and that this government underscores again its penchant for ad hoc policies.

Not an inch longer, not a side more

School lines in the Victoria Institution in the halcyon days were a throwback to a different time.

Literally time stood still for 10 minutes as student uniforms and appearances were inspected by prefects.

There were no exceptions, there were no liberal interpretations. From hair to permitted canvas shoes, there was only decorum to a fault. Penances ready for transgressors.

Harsh it was, intended to condition young men. To emphasise egalitarianism and discipline. The uniform was critical to keep everyone informed that they were not above the system which was determined to school them.

It is fair to assert the British school culture lived in the uniform and evolved over the half century along with a burgeoning class population across the federation.

Right or wrong, it gave things, and indeed it took away things.

This is not to venerate uniforms but to remind there is value in the uniform.

And if a monumental decision to set aside the uniform to achieve better things for a different time — this utopian ideal where schools empower children, not condition them through tough discipline — then it should be done.

Done proper, and not in half-measures.

‘Options, always better’

The 2+2+1 rule seems random.

I suspect flexibility will be the order of the day.

Some weeks, when temperatures soar, it will only be sports attire every day of that week.

It remains unclear if Putrajaya, state, district or school principals decide this independently or in consultation.

The rule looks to ensure all students have all three options available and told a day prior in many instances of the preferred uniform for said day.

This is not so much fun for working class parents who have to fork out for three sets of attire.

How Madani is it to further burden parents?

Mindful that sports attire varies from school to school, and with set orders or designated vendors, the prices can range upwards.

But what will it be when the heat wave dissipates and students only have two sets of standard school uniforms, how will they cope?

Learning sweats

The temporary foregoing of uniforms in recent years was weather enforced.

But how much better are the presently allowed sporting attire in schools over standard uniforms?

Singapore during heat waves, allows male students to have their shirts untucked and female students to wear PE (physical exercise) shorts rather than skirts.

The Malaysian version of sports clothing is a collared T-shirt with adequately thick material and track-bottoms.

If the heat is the problem, would the ministry countenance PE shorts and thin-material clothing to mitigate high temperatures. Most public schools are not air-conditioned bar the teachers’ room.

Would modesty be a far higher consideration than heat induced health problems?

Was this discussed in the stakeholder consultations? Probably not.

The lack of clean water and also clean toilets lead to low water consumption by students in school compounds, is the ministry studying this challenge?

Twice, twice & once

The 2+2+1 rule as already mentioned earlier, is not to piss off any particular group too much.

The school uniform industry has one peak sales period, just before the first term begins. The new school year begins March 10, and therefore the busy spell is around the corner and companies have invested to have enough inventory.

The 2+2+1 rule obviously upsets them, as parents are expected to buy half of their intended amount. This is reminiscent of suppliers up in arms when Maszlee Malik ordered a change of school shoes from white to black overnight in 2019.

Meanwhile, schools are calling up their various vendors — who hold 40 per cent of the school term market — to pump up their supplies of approved sports attire.

There are vested interests in the 2+2+1 rule not fully fleshed out in public discourse.

Public schools & maximisation

Private schools around the world are adamant about their uniforms. They are adamant about their school fees too. They, the schools and the parents paying for the exclusive education can afford the elitism.

Public schools are not there to compete with private schools, in Malaysia notably international schools. Government schools are set up to rationalise the funds available and offer the best possible education for the masses considering a range of issues.

The recent PISA results comparing Malaysia to the developed and developing world did not flatter. We are behind our competition.

This uniform situation has to be on the practical side and ensure that our students are healthy enough to learn. The learning is key.

The discipline and consistency are also important in that learning cycle. Discard the uniform if the situation calls for it, however a half — discard only adds more costs for parents without any clear benefits.

Two days in uniform a week is not going to achieve any of the goals associated with school uniforms, more so when they will be loosely enforced and school grounds filled with a hodgepodge of students in uniforms, sports attire and extra-curricular uniforms.

Maybe the easier and practical solution is to ditch uniforms completely. Let the students show up in what they feel comfortable in and can afford. Yes, yes, that’s a whole other can of worms.

It might be the weather forcing these questions, and answers may be pressing, but it is poor form if the people answering them look weather-beaten, and only offer the weary offend no one but grow nothing approach to education.

Education deserves better. Our children deserve better.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.