Is Clarke right on uniform?

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
The Education Secretary has launched a war on scruffiness. But is it really such a smart move?

So 66 per cent of respondents to a Department for Education and Skills survey thought uniforms could improve school standards, did they?

That would be nice and simple to fix, wouldn't it? I'm all for easy-to-wash, easy-to-throw-on-in-the morning clothes for school, but when exactly did the powers-that-be lose faith in the ability of the average parent and child to choose their own clothes - as they do in most of Europe and the United States?

It seems to me that everything a uniform is supposed to fix should be fixed by some other, more fundamental means. Take, class difference: is our class system still so rigid that it needs ironing out by dressing children alike? It doesn't work, anyway - we all know the subtle differences children can make to uniforms to show where they belong in the pecking order.

But when all children have been subjected to our current obsession with branding (coupled with the other obsession with league tables) those uniforms are only going to exacerbate the class differences between schools. Everyone will know that the kids in red go to a better school than the kids in blue; that the school with the elaborate uniform and the straw boater is more expensive than the one with the purple blazer. (That was one of the reasons for uniform in the first place, wasn't it?) I asked my daughter (comprehensive school, no uniform) if she would have preferred a uniform. She could only say, not entirely seriously of course, that if her school had a uniform, gang warfare with neighbouring schools would soon break out. My son (grammar school, uniform), was not the only one to remove blazer and tie on the bus home for the same reason.

Do we want to give children any more reasons to discriminate against one another? Is that the "sense of identity" we want to encourage? The same one that manifests itself in white and red flag-flying?

Footballers wear a uniform, of course, so you can see which side they play for. So do police officers, so you know who is in authority, and nurses, so you know who is trained to wield a syringe. But schoolchildren? We know who they are, don't we? They are the children around the place, the ones who need protecting and guiding by society as a whole.

Can pride in a school, a positive ethos, discipline, really come from a uniform? Surely it's the other way around?

A good school creates its ethos by taking pleasure in the individuality of its pupils. Doesn't good discipline arise from respecting those differences? Don't children take pride in their school because it is a good institution to belong to?

As a children's author I often talk to schoolchildren, sometimes to one group after another all day long in a hot library. And do you know which groups make my heart sink? The elaborately uniformed ones, who are so often listless and devoid of curiosity, and so often accompanied by bored teachers.

Which groups ask the best questions? The lumbering, straggling, varied and often scruffy children in their own clothes, whose individuality shines off them, reminding me as a speaker that I am in the company of a huge range of thinkers and opinions. (Apologies to all those great kids I've spoken to who were wearing uniforms. You know who you are.) That's my one-off personal response, I know, but aren't all teachers affected in a similar way every day?

Most grown-ups can recall the horrors of having to spend their teenage years in a hideous and unflattering uniform, not to mention the petty rules surrounding it. Many of my generation can also remember the struggle to afford expensive uniform, and in my case the indignity of wearing my brother's girlfriend's cast-offs. Eighty three per cent of parents might approve of uniform - it's certainly cheaper these days - but I'm not sure we should kid ourselves it's actually for the children's benefit.

I think we should take the heat out of clothes and fashion by letting children wear what they choose to school. They'll very quickly create their own uniforms anyway, but at least that will be their choice and their expression of their own identities.

Next week's summer debate: School choice - good or bad?

Makeover, Kate Petty's latest novel for teenagers, is published by Orion

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