Over the past week or so, thousands of parents up and down the country have been furiously sewing children’s names into new school uniforms (or cheating with a laundry pen).
Many will have chosen a school for its uncompromising approach to education and to discipline. But in the next few weeks, as sure as lessons follow assembly, we will be reading stories of pupils being sent home for not wearing the correct uniform and of parents being outraged because, well, how dare they do what they said they were going to do? To my child?
The uniform is fraught with problems. Should schools even have one? What purpose does it serve? The high cost of some is another. Few items of clothing carry so much baggage – just ask Hugo Boss.
The school uniform is of course a unifier, an equaliser, which should not be underestimated when more than two-thirds of secondary pupils are said to be beginning the new term worrying about their appearance (bit.ly/PupilWorries). It’s a symbol of pride in belonging to a community and – this one is especially for parents – it signals that you’ve bought in to an ethos, a set of values and rules.
The former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was, unsurprisingly, a big fan: “All successful organisations require rules, and if children are to succeed in school and in work they have to respect them,” he said in defending a headteacher who sent pupils home for breaching school uniform policy. The act was, he said, “in essence, a lesson in how to be employable”.
Well, it jolly well is for the modern boy about town. Get used to it, chaps, you’ll be wearing a suit or overalls for the rest of your working lives. And woe betide you if you fail to research the uniform for a job in the City and wear – the horror – brown shoes to your interview.
In school uniform – much like in societal attitudes – there has been a strict gender code for boys and girls for a very long time: trousers for boys, skirts for girls. The oldest uniform, at Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, has remained almost unchanged for more than 460 years.
But it is mainly the girls who get short shrift, or even a short shift, especially when it comes to pinafores and skirts. Female clothing is impractical, if not often hobbling.
'The sands are shifting'
Skirts of any length are not conducive to any physical activity: too short and you show your knickers to everyone, too long and you’ll get your feet tangled in them. Even the trousers (if allowed) are cut more tightly and restrict movement. School shoes are dainty, flimsy, uncomfortable and totally useless for any activity except sitting looking pretty.
As writer and former teacher Lucy Rycroft-Smith put it so succinctly: why are my children’s options restricted – and often inferior – “because they both happen to have vaginas”? (bit.ly/SchUniform)
But the sands are shifting. Last year, Brighton College headteacher Richard Cairns garnered a few headlines when he announced that boys and girls at the schools could choose to wear either a “trouser uniform” or a “skirt uniform” to help address gender dysphoria. I’ve even heard anecdotes of pupil-led feminist societies forcing skirt-only policy changes on the basis that the practice is against the Equality Act 2010.
All this kerfuffle begs the question: why bother with uniforms at all? After all, they do not make the education any better – and they do not raise achievement, despite many attempts to try to establish a link. But what they are often linked to is still important: a culture that purports to support the pursuit of high standards. And that’s not to be sniffed at.
It’s not only children – we all need structures, limits and boundaries. Society can’t function without them. And personally, I love any rule – it gives me something to break.