If the cap fits...

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
. . . it doesn't matter that someone has worn it before, says Hilary Potts, who believes parents and schools need to rethink their ideas about uniform.

The high price of school uniform is a topic newspaper editors turn to when they are short of anything else to discuss - usually in August or September.

But the expense of a full kit of uniform is often a myth. Fee-paying schools with pricey blazers and special team colours seem to have the best and most comprehensive sales of used uniform. State schools strong on uniform usually have trousers, skirts and blouses in standard colours and sell their logoed shirts and sweatshirts at cost price - with secondhand ones available through sales that raise money for the parent teacher association.

And parents who do buy new rarely buy everything new all at once. For one of my children, the total number of new items over his 11-year career at one school was one tie, one cap and two pairs of rugby socks. All the rest came at jumble-sale prices. Neither he, nor his sister, ever complained of feeling out of place - presumably because this was what many of their contemporaries were doing.

Buying secondhand does demand a few basic skills, such as the ability to replace zips and buttons. I am only one generation away from the women who did these things in wartime - who thought nothing of repairing and turning sheets and curtains. But I suspect that many of the people who write about the dreadful cost of uniform would throw away a school blouse if the buttons came off or the hem frayed.

I am not poor; both my children went to fee-paying schools. But I hate aste. My eyes were opened in a sewing lesson circa 1960, when a classmate said: "I don't need to learn how to put in a zip because I get new uniform every year." She was, as far as I know, the only one in the class on a uniform grant.

There's nothing wrong with the idea of uniform grants, or with newspaper campaigns to keep uniform prices down, as long as we don't promote the idea that everyone must have new everything all the time (whether or not at the taxpayer's expense) or that the concept of make-do-and-mend is redundant.

My main gripe about uniform is not its cost, but its application. What children need inside school is protective items to cover ordinary clothes in science and cookery and at school dinner time. A standard overall or lab coat (possibly with the school logo or badge) would do perfectly well for comfort, convenience, concealment of social divisions and the important business of distinguishing pupils from staff and strangers, and could be donned on arrival.

On school trips, for ease of counting large numbers of heads, a standard piece of headgear, T-shirt or distinctive jacket badge is needed. School practice seems to apply almost entirely the other way round - fussy rules within the school premises, an anything-goes policy to the detriment of safety and control outside them.

The uniform issue is a fetish with little or no relation to the useful functions school clothes could be performing. A uniform on the above lines (supplemented by chainstore sports kit) would be cheaper than anything currently in use almost everywhere.

Hilary Potts lives in west London

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