Thailand’s strict school dress code tested as students ditch uniforms on first day of semester
Students have been grumbling about school uniforms for ages in Thailand. But few people imagined they would be brave enough to challenge strict dress-code rules by wearing casual clothes to class.
In scenes that shocked many observers, hundreds of students broke long-held rules by abandoning their uniforms at the start of the new semester on Tuesday.
Education Minister Natthaphon Teepsuwan told Parliament the following day that he will soon make a decision on updating the controversial school uniform code. He hinted that schools may allow students to dress as they like for one day a week or once a month.
“We should be able to finalise new dress-code guidelines by the end of this month,” he said, adding that his ministry was now gathering information on school rules governing uniforms and hairstyles in response to student-protesters’ calls for change.
This week, a number of kids braved possible punishment by turning up for their new school term minus the compulsory white shirts and blue/black pants or skirts. Some also reported to badstudent.co, a website launched specially for the no-uniform campaign by the ironically self-titled Bad Student group, about being separated from their classmates or sent to counselling, as punishment for defying the dress code.
While showing a certain degree of flexibility towards the defiance, Natthaphon has threatened legal action to shut down badstudent.co and sue those who defame schools or teachers.
“Schools and teachers are just doing their duty [in enforcing rules]. If they are defamed, they can take legal action,” he announced on Wednesday.
Despite the legal threat, Bad Student – a group of schoolkids who are challenging rigid hierarchy and other traditions in Thai education – has not backed down. Its website is still up and running, displaying the names of schools and teachers who have blocked students’ move to boycott uniforms. However, the list of teachers labelled as “outdated” no longer displays their full names.
As of press time, Suranaree Witthaya School in Nakhon Ratchasima province had overtaken Bangkok’s Saint Joseph Convent School as the harshest dress-code enforcer. Both school has received more than 1,500 complaints via the website.
The Khon Kaen-based @KKCpakeestudent group has joined Bad Student in encouraging children to dress in their own style at school.
Some parents have responded by supporting their kids’ decision to abandon school uniforms. One mother, for instance, lodged a complaint against the director of Horwang School in Bangkok for banning her uniform-less son from attending class. The school’s rules do not list exclusion from class as a punishment for not wearing a uniform, she said.
Origin of Thai School Uniforms
School uniforms have existed in Thailand since the reign of King Rama V, when the country had started laying down its educational foundations. Back then, only boys were allowed to go to school, and their uniform was a white traditional collarless shirt, with a straw hat or scarf in their school colours and knee-length shorts. Later, the colour of the shirt was changed to grey for easier maintenance.
By 1913, girls went to schools too and their uniform was a traditional long skirt in a solid colour.
After the Siamese Revolution in 1932, students went in for military training from Mathayom 2, and hence had to wear khakis and a hat emblazoned with the message “We Love our Nation More Than our Life”.
School uniforms as we see them now arrived after the end of World War II.
Rationality and Legality of rules
Effective since 2008, Article 5 of the School Uniform Act stipulates that failure to wear a school uniform may result in disciplinary action. The Education Ministry has also issued a parallel regulation specifying what students need to wear.
Thai school-uniform rules have always been strictly enforced. Teachers in charge of administration, for example, dictate exactly how long schoolgirls’ skirts must be. Muslim students are also required to comply with dress-code rules. At some Buddhist schools, the hijab and long trousers embraced by Muslim girls are prohibited.
The Education Ministry argues that school uniforms have many benefits. They offer safety, differentiating schoolkids in public places and enabling people to identify their schools and age range if anything happens to them. In complying with dress-code rules, students also develop discipline and responsibility. Uniforms also help build a sense of solidarity and equality among students. The dress-code rules are by no means designed to infringe on kids’ rights or limit their creativity, says the ministry.
On the other hand, student-protesters say uniforms foster authoritarianism. They say students should have the right to wear what they want since choice of clothing does not affect academic performance. They argue that inequality exists even when students wear the same uniform, so the claim that strict dress-code rules create equality is not valid. In their view, school uniforms also impose an unnecessary expense on households.
Economy and Lessons from Overseas
Just before the current academic year began on July 1, a security guard at a superstore in Chumphon arrested a mother for trying to steal school uniforms. The mother admitted to the theft but explained she had lost her job due to the COVID-19 outbreak and could not afford to buy uniforms for her kids. Her story sparked sympathy from other shoppers, who stepped forward to cover the Bt1,200 bill.
Despite the happy ending, this case underlines the fact that school uniforms burn big holes in household expenses each year. According to a study on educational expenses between 2008 and 2016, school uniforms cost the government and parents Bt12 billion annually.
Thailand is not alone in requiring that its students wear school uniforms. China, Japan, Britain, and South Korea, to name just a few, have fairly strict school dress codes. Yet, opponents to school-uniform rules point out that students in countries such as the United States and Germany can wear what they want to class.
More Demands to Follow
Professor Sompong Jitradub, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, suggests that the Education Ministry lays down broad rules for each school to apply as it sees fit. He emphasised that the ministry should understand and listen to kids when it comes to educational reform, since children are stakeholders in the process.
“Students were talking about hairstyles and now uniforms. In the future, they will address more topics. Please listen and manage all these conflicts in an understanding way,” the prominent educator concluded.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk