Kick the comfort of uniform habit

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
They devoted long minutes of the news last week to the subject of school uniform costs, as children's charities blew the whistle over the expense and schools which restrict parents to named suppliers. With more deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Government crumbling like a cupcake in the rain, it seemed a bit over the top; but on reflection it came into the category of "news you can use".

Everybody cares a bit about school uniforms: parents, children, teachers, sad old perves, St Trinian fans, and even childless people who live near schools and need to recognise which uniform is most likely to contain a little monster who will key their car and throw chip-wrappers in their front gardens. School uniform is one of those hot subjects, like house prices, which no headline-writer can resist.

The arguments are all too familiar. Uniform levels out differences of wealth, it looks "smart", it creates a corporate identity, it saves rows over what to wear in the morning and dissuades girls from dressing like lapdancers. Opponents say it flattens out individualism, makes a crushing statement about the overweening power of the institution, and stops children from learning how to dress with decent formality in their own clothes, because in the end the only things they own are a hated uniform and a cupboardful of rebelliously sluttish tat; thus they don't have anything to wear for funerals or job interviews.

Add to that the charities' concern about the expense of uniforms from named suppliers, and the indignation of supermarkets that some schools refuse to accept 99p shirts and dodgy Far Eastern trousers, and what do you have? A nation ill-at ease with itself, that's what. A young nation furiously twitching at its waistband, itching in its blazer, sitting out the pleats in its skirt, clumping in its shoes, losing its uniform socks and rowing with its mother over them.

In all the discussion about making things cheap and simple - by allowing standard supermarket uniforms and issuing badges to sew on - two things are rarely mentioned. One is that, admirable though it may be for globalisation to create a world where a formal-looking outfit costs a fiver, there are good reasons why some schools like to specify a supplier. One reason is that there are 40 different shades of grey.

The other reason is that you get what you pay for. A good, well-cut wool blazer may last through three owners, acquiring a decent patina of age and always looking much the same. Ditto trousers and skirts. A cheap synthetic equivalent will look just as good on the supermarket hanger, but wash or clean it a couple of times and it will look and feel terrible, bobbly or shiny and hideously misshapen; it will make everybody thoroughly depressed.

Instead of looking like miniature bankers and lawyers your pupils will look cheap, sad, and squalid. They will, you know.

But note the word "formal". It is expensive to create a traditional look properly, and easy to make it look cheap. On the other hand there are plenty of styles of clothing which can be cheap, cheerful, practical and pleasant to look at even after rough treatment. There is nothing sacred about a boxy, formal jacket or blazer, still less about a tie. Or pleats.

Some people - like my husband - say they feel more fit for work when they are trussed up in these things, but that is mere cultural conditioning.

Personally, I can write, research or phone just as well in a tattered dressing-gown, and often do. Nobody jeers at the Dalai Lama for going around in a floppy orange bag thing, or belittles his wisdom; nobody suggests that general in combat fatigues is less likely to make a good decision than when he's got a lot of medals hanging off him. Bob Geldof has achieved international respect while looking as if he spent the night in the scuppers of a tramp steamer with his head pillowed on the ship's dog.

You could put children in a uniform of blue jeans, shirt and navy sweatshirt with a sew-on school logo, and it wouldn't reduce educational standards. You could issue dungarees or - as I once suggested here - take the old-fashioned French solution of tabliers, school overall coats in bright washable cotton. You could opt for sweatshirts worn with anything black, or dark blue, or brown underneath, according to taste. You could certainly ditch the stupidity of the tie.

Education need not involve shoulder-seams or buttons, you know. It really needn't. They're security blankets. We expect the children to give up clutching familiar rags and teddies when they start school. Perhaps schools could do the same.

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