We are a country which pretends to have school uniforms, but turns a blind eye to the frilly skirts and flashy belts, to the tie knotted somewhere and the shirts hanging out . the breeks showing four inches of underpants and most of the girls showing not just their brand new bras but their brand new breasts as well.
We even give uniform grants to those who never wear them.
I'm just back from holiday in a country where the poverty was heartbreaking. No job, no food. Simple. The kids wore washed-out, outgrown torn clothing to play and work in, their bare feet in sandals made from old tyres. Old before their time in some ways, their infectious grins and stoical acceptance of life brought tears to your eyes.
For school, though, these kids had uniforms. Knee socks, regulation length skirts, ties knotted neatly. OK, maybe a parody of British public schools, but these kids looked great. And their behaviour is great, and their work ethic is great. They recognise that education is their way out, and it is not an opportunity they waste.
We stopped by a small country school. The children wore jackets and scarves because, in spite of the cold winter day, there was no heating. These are children who might walk for three hours to school each day. Their jotter work was beautiful. Their writing was neat and their drawings spirited. Their grins were wide and there was no self-pity.
British parents will pause before lighting their next fag to plead poverty as a reason for their child's lack of uniform, said offspring in a room with a TV, computer games, make-up and hair straighteners.
Is the law on the parents' side, so that we can't insist on proper school uniform? A tie costs three quid, shirts even less. Uniform isn't a symbol of control, but a sign that a child is willing to work in school. The correlation between exam achievement and uniform is not a class issue, but a reflection of accepting and keeping to rules, including working and doing homework and not answering back.
I can't envisage a time when British pupils will ever show the same commitment to learning that I saw on holiday - but can't we start by insisting they at least wear a tie?
Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.