A massive swing in favour of a traditional look surprises managers, says Seonag MacKinnon
The teenager in casual wear - anything but casually put together - gave her considered verdict on the school's day holiday from uniform to raise funds for charity. "Well it was good fun, but I couldn't be doing with the strain of having to look this good every day."
If recent research is anything to go by, this St Kentigern's pupil from Blackburn, West Lothian appears to be typical of many of the current generation of Scottish schoolchildren. Questionnaires issued by the authority as part of a consultation exercise designed to lead to the introduction of uniform across the area suggest a major shift in favour. The dress code that the parents of today rejected when at school themselves, is now desired by their children. And the vast majority of parents have swung in favour of it too, leaving only a minority behind. "We didn't think that was what our school was all about," said one puzzled member of a school management team when its pupils voted in vast numbers for the introduction of uniform.
Faint echoes perhaps of the TV comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, in which sensible Saffron who wishes to lead a conventional existence is a source of curiosity to her mother Edina and friend Patsy. They in turn are an object of curiosity to viewers, as they are unusual among people of a certain age in hanging on to the colourful laissez faire attitudes of their youth.
The Edinas and Patsys seem to be comprehensively outnumbered in 1998 Scotland. Results of the West Lothian questionnaires are in line with those from a 1997 consultation exercise in West Dunbartonshire, the first authority in Scotland to introduce uniform across the board. Pupils, parents and staff were massively in favour. Children at seven of West Lothian's 11 secondaries now walk in the school gates each morning in regulation clothing that ranges from blazer, black shoes, shirt and tie at the more formal end of the scale, to sweatshirts, polo shirts and trainers at the other. The remaining four secondaries are expected to follow suit from August, once the consultation period and assessment are complete. A citizens' jury comprising a member from each of the 11 school boards plus a representative from the educational services is one format for consultation. Staff meetings, pupils' consultation meetings and open forum public meetings in many different schools, represent another.
Councillors on the education services committee will make a formal decision at their May meeting, but the result is not in doubt.
Rather than letting the majority of schools get on with it, councillors aim to bring the minority into line and offer the support of a formal policy in case some schools run into difficulties with enforcement.
Commenting on developments, education convener Ross Martin says: "The parental tide changed some time ago, but now the tide has turned in a wider sense and is moving swiftly. In huge numbers pupils, parents and staff are strongly in favour." Councillor Martin who himself went to a progressive uniform-free school in Edinburgh during the early Eighties believes that the shift towards a less individualistic approach to schoolwear is part of a wider social trend. "We have gone through the trendy lefty stage and we've experienced the emphasis on the individual in the Thatcher years. Now there has been a return to tradition.
"In the move from old Labour to new Labour, society in general seems to be looking at things more collectively. A return to uniform is not something happening in isolation. It is part of that new desire to be an individual, but also part of a club or community again." As well as binding pupils together, uniform helps raise standards of behaviour and achievement, says Mr Martin. He argues that casual clothing encourages a casual approach and street clothes encourage the wider culture of the street to come into the school.
Security is also at stake, he maintains, in the sense both of making intruders more visible and of encouraging among pupils a sense of belonging. This latter aspect of security is particularly important if the child's home background is unstable.
Pride is at issue too, says Mr Martin, since a school's reputation rises when pupils smarten up. Children also feel a greater sense of it when they are wearing "the team strip". He rejects suggestions that uniform represents a major financial burden for many families. Schools invite suppliers in to offer the significant discounts of bulk sales, and school swap shops enable some items - particularly blazers - to be sold second hand. If, despite footwear and clothing grants, some children are still not in uniform, staff may discreetly pass items their way.
He suggests that in any case nothing puts a greater strain on the family budget than children trying to keep up with each other in the fashion stakes. It is a theme picked up by Kathleen Gibbons, headteacher of St Kentigern's, who insists that pupils wear black shoes as well as uniform to school. She believes that a child's inability to buy the pound;90 trainers and other designer wear worn by classmates affects their self-esteem. "It is a myth that school uniform is elitist," says Mrs Gibbons. "It really puts kids on a level playing field."
WEST LOTHIAN QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Sample sanctions in draft policy
* Verbal reminders
* Individual interviews
* Letter to parents
* Interview with parents
* Bar on privileges (discos, clubs)
* Bar on trips "on the grounds of safety, difficulties in identifying pupil as a member of the school party"
Sample positive strategies
* Consultation with parents
* Encourage staff commitment
* Offer chance to view and buy at school
* Involve pupils in designing the detail of the uniform
* Promote in displays, newsletters and the handbook
* Reminders at assemblies