Two years ago, High Court Judge Anyara Emukule made a ruling in a dispute over school uniforms and said they are a symbol of identity that must be worn by all students irrespective of class, religion or ethnic extraction.
At the centre of the dispute was the parent of a student at Bura Girls in the Coast, who had sued the school for suspending his daughter for failing to put on the appropriate uniform on religious grounds.
The judge said uniforms are decided by schools’ board of management and serve to create cohesion among students, promoting positive sense of communal values and learning and avoiding disparities on religion or status.
Now Education Permanent Secretary Belio Kipsang’ has sparked debate about school uniforms, with the proposition that the government was considering introducing the same uniform for all students across the country.
In this thinking, standardised uniform would enhance identity even better. All schools would have the same make and colour of uniforms to ensure oneness among all learners.
The argument is not as outrageous as the majority of us think, it is the practice in southern Africa. But in our case, the question is: what is the problem that the PS wants to fix? Has anybody complained about the diversity of school uniforms? What is prompting the decision? What does he want to achieve?
For starters, Western missionaries introduced school uniforms in Kenya in the early 20th century. The primary purpose was to distinguish those attending schools from the rest.
Then they were skimpy and had a patronising ring of confining learners and instilling discipline.
The practice of uniforms was to continue when the colonial government took over the management of schools after the Beecher Report of 1949, and even when Africans rebelling against oppressive school systems established their own — the once-called African schools like Kisii, Kagumo and Kakamega.
Having been established as a tradition, it became part and parcel of Kenya’s school system at independence and to date.
Since then, they have served a useful purpose and are cherished by students and parents alike. They create distinction among schools, help in instilling discipline and bring a sense of belonging.
Indeed, uniforms have become an integral article for identifying schools, evoking sentimental feelings.
Purporting to change that by creating a standard uniform for all schools would arouse unnecessary conflict between the ministry on side and schools and parents on the other.
It is an unnecessary irritation at a time when there are serious issues to confront, key being runaway students strike, staff shortage in schools and inadequate funding.
To be sure, the uniform is not a must item in schooling. In Europe and America, primary and high school learners do not put on uniforms. However, since we have embraced them and made them part and parcel of our school system, but distinct to each institution, we cannot now begin thinking of standardising them yet there is no compelling reason to do so. The proposal is misplaced and should be dismissed.