No Jacket Required: Matterings of Uniform and Social Justice in Contemporary English Schooling

Despite the continual denial and erasure of the body in schooling (Ali-Khan and White, 2022) issues of how bodies are clothed via school uniform – who wears it, how it is worn, and how its wearing is enforced – cut to the heart of debates around the value and purpose of formal education in England today. Uniform matters; and as such, its status as a marker both via policy and material enactment reveals much about understandings of childhood, power, justice, teacher-student relationships, and the role of the school in neo-liberal times. This paper explores the contemporary discourse around school uniform in a multi-modal sense, via a critical policy analysis of schools in two educational boroughs, and a new materialist focus on issues of clothing, embodiment and affect. Rather than taking the concept of uniform as a whole, we ‘follow the flow of matter’ by defamiliarising and ‘making strange’ (Braidotti, 2018) familiar items of clothing that comprise or in some way subvert it (coats, skirts and blazers). Intra-actions between uniform and policy within the messy and complex world of the school are noticed and exposed, the assemblage producing a range of affective, spatial and responses which reveal another side to school life.

Policies, clothing materials, and embodied responses are thus not seen here in a hierarchical sense but concurrently as a complex amalgamation of elements, which are always already entangled and intra-acting. In this way policies and standards – although generally understood as non-human agents – are bodies themselves with the capacity to affect others (Bateman et al, 2022). Given the complexity of teaching environments across social, cultural and material perspectives, this paper intentionally brings together a range of theorists and philosophies to provide a conceptual framework that recognises complexity and does not attempt to flatten it into binary social constructivist or materialist frames.  As policies are translated, diffracted and subverted by both teachers and students, new practices and processes emerge, which speak not only to schools as societies of control (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) but also open opportunities to explore different ways in which social justice might be enacted.

Dr Kay Sidebottom, Leeds Beckett University

Rob Walker, Birmingham City University