If the school cap fits...

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Living in the west of Edinburgh has its benefits. On the hill by the zoo, not only do we have a panoramic view of the Pentlands circling the south of the city, we also hear, in the late night or early morning silence, lions and tigers roaring and gibbons gibbering.

If I liked rugby, or Hearts, I would be in walking distance of both Murrayfield and Tynecastle. As it is, we are conveniently placed for the M8 and easy access to Hibs' ritual debacles at Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden.

However, the one disadvantage lies in the large numbers of independent school pupils in the area. This isn't the start of a polemic against the private sector. No. It's about the uniforms.

Now, I'm actually in favour of dress code; our pupils all wear it and their appearance is frequently and very positively mentioned. However, my annoyance is caused by the Small Person in Uniform who regularly passes our house, because he provides a permanent and embarrassing reminder of what I looked like in 1963. OK, the cap has gone, but otherwise, it's unaltered: the long grey socks, the braided blazer, the Viyella shirt and loud tie and, oh God, those shorts.

It is still horrendous to realise that, in 1963, going to school around 10 miles north of the Cavern, while the Beatles wore their collarless Pierre Cardin suits and Merseybeat ruled the world, I was wandering about looking like a refugee from the Krankies, or, more accurately in those halcyon days of radio comedy, Jimmy Clitheroe's wee brother.

It wasn't just the look of the outfit, it was the outrageous importance of it in the general scale of things. Back in those days, winning the educational lottery and qualifying for senior secondary meant a shiny new bicycle for the child, and the proud parents got to buy The School Uniform.

In Liz Lochhead's poem, "The Choosing", she points out how some of her contemporaries failed to take up their place in senior secondary because they couldn't afford the uniform.

For those who could, though, it became central to their lives. The trip to the local department store to choose blazer, tie, shirts and socks was every bit as crucial as bar mitzvah or confirmation, and once the jaggy shirt and overbig blazer were in the wardrobe, they would be worn on every possible family occasion, long before school started.

But below brilliantined hair, even at the age of 11, we were vaguely aware that this was a subtle message of one-upmanship, conveyed to relatives, neighbours and friends whose less fortunate offspring were condemned to three years of metalwork and secretarial.

Curiously, the uniform that was so manifestly part of all weekend celebrations and strictly imposed by the school authorities, was proportionately verboten when it came to home life. How many thousands of children were greeted by the refrain: "Change out of your uniform, get your homework done, then you can have your tea"?

So, more than anything else the Small Person in a Uniform reminds me of the huge part that school played in the lives of 1960s children, especially in comparison to today's generation.

When schools are charged with responsibility for so much personal development these days, there is an irony in the much reduced influence of school in the lives of young people. An average senior pupil may well have a part-time job, taking up most of their weekend and an evening or two a week. They socialise not just with school friends but with a wide range of acquaintances from their workplace and locality.

Homework is a far more flexible affair than the "two subjects each night for the next morning" that was the rule in the mid 20th century and the siren attractions of digital televison, computers, DVDs and PlayStations are a quantum leap from the family sitting together in one room to watch Double Your Money and Dr Finlay's Casebook.

In many ways, the developments have been positive. Young people show far more confidence and self-awareness these days, though one might counter that by saying that they need to. The almost unlimited power that teachers and schools had in those days inevitably led to abuses, and today's schools are far more attuned to the needs of developing the whole child.

As teachers, we have a harder job than our predecessors but, hopefully, it is also more open to a wider range of satisfaction. Pupils too are exposed to more pressures, but have more opportunities and more in-school support.

Our schools are challenging institutions that present young people with a consistent set of values and standards and that has to be positive, however you dress it up - but preferably not in grey shorts and long woolly socks!

Sean McPartlin is depute head at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston.

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