Friday, January 10, 2014

The strange obsession with school uniforms in Honduras

I’ve come up with a clever, no-cost way to reduce poverty and increase school attendance in Honduras.
Get rid of school uniforms.
The uniforms - white dress shirts, navy blue pants or skirt, black shoes and white socks - are mandatory in public schools. Teachers are quite crabby about it, to the point of telling kids to stay home if they aren’t dressed in the right kit.
No desks, but kids better have uniforms
For many parents, the costs are huge. Some children don’t go to school because they don’t have the right clothes.
It’s getting worse. The government’s latest tax increases took the sales tax from 12 per cent to 15 per cent. It also applied the tax to items that had been exempt - including school uniforms.
La Prensa reported on the issue this week, and quoted typical prices for school uniforms - $6.50 for pants, $7 for shirts, $12 for leather shoes. (Which, based on the experience outfitting the Angelitos kids, will last about as long as you would expect a pair of $12 shoes to last.)
So, figuring two sets of clothes (one to wash) and three school-age kids, estimate $120 for the uniforms. That’s before backpacks, notebooks and all the other things on the mandatory supply list that teachers send home.
That’s a lot of money in a country where 74 per cent of the population lives in poverty and 47 per cent in extreme poverty. 
We’re acquainted with a woman with two school-age children, and little steady employment. She worked for 12 hours cleaning and plucking chickens one day this week, and was paid $5. 
That’s not atypical. For her, school uniforms and supplies and the fees levied through the year are a huge challenge.
Get rid of the uniforms, and poor families have more money to spend on things they need and one less reason to keep children home from school.
I can’t think of any good argument for the uniforms. It’s not as if poor children will be singled out for having bad clothes. Almost everyone is poor. (And people with any money send their children to private schools.)
And blurring individual differences isn’t necessarily such a great idea. 
In fact, Honduran schools would do well to put a lot more emphasis on individuality and creativity and a lot less on rote learning. 
Schools are generally dismal. An international test of math and science knowledge in 45 countries found Honduran students ranked at the bottom, with South Africa and Botswana.
Children here aren’t less intelligent. But they don’t learn much, for a variety of reasons. In the U.S., 68 per cent of students performed at the intermediate level in the math tests; in Chile, 23 per cent. In Honduras, four per cent. When one in 25 students is doing OK in math, a country has a bleak future.
I admit to a strong anti-uniform bias. I went to public schools, but did my final year in a Quebec public high school where grey flannels, white shirt, tie and blazer were required. The pants itched. The costume had nothing to do with our education. It seemed mostly like a chance for those with power to demonstrate it by telling other people what they must wear. 
Letting Honduran kids come to school in whatever they have to wear simply makes sense. Any barrier to education hurts kids, families and the country. And uniforms are a barrier.
The other interesting aspect is that Honduran parents put up with all this. They don’t, generally, show up at the school and insist that their children be allowed to attend in flip flops instead of leather shoes. They don’t demand better from the schools. The failure rate is extremely high, but parents don’t demand to know why their children didn’t learn enough to advance to the next grade. 
My hope is that Paul’s Law will abolish school uniforms in Honduras. My best guess is that parents would save more than $40 million a year, with most of the benefits going to poor families. More children would be in school.
And a small blow would be struck to the culture of conformismo.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

great idea

Laurie Matherne said...

Well written and thoughtful post. I agree wholeheartedly. I try to find offerings in the States to at least pay for shoes for our kids. They cannot afford even cheap shoes. More and more parents are telling me that they cannot afford to send their children to school due to mounting, burdensome costs. We have a small ministry on the outskirts of the capital.

e.a.f said...

the government wants uniforms because it reduces the number of children who can attend school. Fewer children in school, less money the government has to spend on education.

Few if any governments care about children at the bottom of the economic scale, so this works for the elites.