Uniform argument worn out

21st May 2010 at 01:00

They sat in front of me, quietly working, model pupils in every way. Yet one stood out for all the wrong reasons: she was not in uniform! Such a mortal sin marks her out as some sort of dangerous subversive, in so many quarters, to so many heidies and deputes, and I have to say such a situation appals me.

Why can't we just allow our young people to dress as they please, within the bounds of decency and safety, and despatch the uniform craze to the dustbin of educational history? Why the fixation?

Short of fetishism, it seems to me pointless to insist on such dress. But poorer children would be stigmatised by wearing poorer clothing, they say. Rubbish, I say. Every school has "poorer" kids, some with poorer, or dirtier, uniforms, poorer standards of hygiene, poorer fitting garments or just poorer social skills. Wearing a blazer or tie doesn't solve this, and it doesn't convey social cachet or make them smell any better.

Uniforms save money, the righteous say. No, I say. Full uniform can be expensive and impractical and, given the price of "normal" clothes in certain well-known stores, one could practically dress an entire family for the price of a proper gabardine blazer. The better-off kids will always look better off if they want to: for example, one well-off girl I taught, the daughter of a local gangster, displayed her wealth in full uniform, "Armani" emblazoned in silk across the back of her white blouse.

Oh, but they need to look like they are ready for work, another argument goes. Well, when my kids went to nursery, in sweatshirts and jogging bottoms usually, or T-shirts and shorts, they were comfortable and mobile, ready for playing, painting, modelling, listening and talking - in other words, learning, in a creative environment (plus, of course, their clothes could be washed, dried, handed down or replaced with relative ease).

So why do we do it? Certainly for no sound educational reason: otherwise, those countries around the world whose schools fare better than us academically would be rushing to enhance these achievements by forcing through immediate sartorial sanctions.

Or is it perhaps that we cannot help aping our so-called "betters", those in private schools who proudly parade their superiority in very full "school-uniform-with three-bags-and-a-hockey-stick" displays of wealth and privilege?

"Oh no," I hear. "It's about belonging." Yet people belong to all sorts of churches, clubs, political parties and organisations without that fact emblazoned across their chests.

But then, did I forget the security argument? No, our school, with its several entrances, is hardly impregnable to some crazed gunman intent on carnage, no matter what he wears. And, of course, a really determined villain could just wait until lunchtime and position himself near the school gates or outside the local chippie.

I am afraid no argument for school uniform really holds water. Give everyone an ID badge and be done with it, and please stop picking on perfectly pleasant pupils whose school tie is slightly askew. For this is what happens, usually done by staff who are far too afraid to tackle the real behavioural problems within a school but feel they have to exercise some vestige of power.

Get on with educating our young people, stop bullying them over their dress, and leave that choice where it really belongs - with the individual.

Michael Coyle is an English teacher.

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