MOSCOW - It’s hard to shake the feeling that the idea of reinstating mandatory school uniforms has been discussed on and off ever since school uniforms were abandoned two decades ago.

To recall the discussion last spring: The Duma came to the conclusion that uniforms could ease tensions between social classes at school, and even suggested getting to work on a style. But the Ministry of Education and Sciences was skeptical: why bother, when each school has the right to decide its own dress code? Then the Ministry of Trade came out strongly in favor of uniforms, as an anti-crisis measure to save Russian light manufacturing.

A return to a national dress code for schoolchildren has been backed at the very highest levels, including recent support from Vladimir Putin. The Russian President did say, however, that he thought that uniforms could be dealt with at a regional, or even local, level.

But behind Putin’s announcement was in response to a very specific recent controversy that erupted after a school in the southern Stavropol region forbade several Muslim girls from attending class in a hijab. The girls’ relatives filed a complaint with the region’s Islamic leadership, and eventually the school allowed the girls to attend class wearing a simple headscarf, but not the hijab. After the clash was reported nationally, Putin expressed his support for uniforms.

Stavropol’s governor, Valeri Zerenkov, expressed his supported for uniforms. “Education in our secular state should remain secular,” he said at a ministers’ meeting. “We shouldn’t turn the schoolyard into a place for demonstrating one or another religious practice.”

Zerenkov has already given orders to check with all the educational institutions to make sure that students are wearing ‘secular’ attire, and has also ordered preparation for the introduction of uniforms.

British-style

Officials have no plans for what the uniforms might look like, and appeared to be caught completely off-guard by the governor’s request. Now the Duma is prepared to make their life easier by instituting a uniform for the whole country, which would put Russia on par with Great Britain, where students are still required to wear a uniform to school.

But even in uniform-loving Britain, there is no single, national school uniform, explained Emma Smith, a professor of Education and Social Justice at Leicester University. Practically every school has its own dress code that is tied to the school’s tradition. Most schools there have allowed girls to wear pants instead of skirts since the 1990s, and many of them have even given up on ties for boys. In regards to religious symbols, like elsewhere in Europe, Britain has opened that discussion only recently.

Each school makes its own rules, and if the parents aren’t happy, they file a suit,” Smith explained. “Muslim girls are usually allowed to wear the hijab, but there have been cases where girls have been forbidden from wearing the niqab (which covers the full face except the eyes). However all children are allowed to wear necklaces with religious symbols.” 

The British government considers school uniforms an important part of promoting a feeling of belonging at schools and thinks uniforms teach responsibility. In Russia, today’s parents, most of who wore Soviet school uniforms when they went to school, probably have a little experience shortening their uniform dress to a mini-skirt or wearing their uniform jacket with jeans. Maybe they could give their own children a little practical advice if school uniforms are resurrected.