We must not tie them down

5th June 2009 at 01:00

"It's about making everyone the same, like bricks in the wall," I'd say to my son as I spread my morning toast. And sometimes I'd add: "It's a form of social repression." Occasionally, I'd even suggest: "What about your nice leather jacket?" He'd ignore me of course. Hauling on his maroon blazer, he'd explain kindly: "I like my school uniform."

A little reverse psychology goes a long way. So what, if the tie was tied in a floppy knot or used as a bandanna or an arm sling - the uniform was smart. Later on in his school career, the tie trailed from car windows, or flapped from the aerials of whichever parent's car they'd been able to borrow. All in all, it was a pretty adaptable, if dangerous, accessory.

Pity then, that now there's a push for the clip-on tie. I know there are health and safety reasons (you can't trail them from car windows), but the clip-on is favoured partly because it defies any attempt to personalise it or wear it Hollyoaks-style. And, it's been suggested, it will prevent schoolchildren being creative in the way they wear them. There's not a lot you can do with a clip-on. It's useless as a bandanna or sling. But then, the last thing we want is any kind of creativity creeping in to our educational establishments.

Further education colleges have never leant towards a corporate image. Not many students have been keen on college scarves or sweatshirts. In courses centred on creative industries, the clothes students choose to wear are seen as extensions of their personality, making a statement about who they are. That might mean someone turning up in a purple net skirt with sequins, a jaunty little hat or red winklepickers - and maybe all three together. One of my most successful students had a passion for novelty socks. She had over 200 pairs and loved them all.

For some, it's not just clothes and accessories that are important, but body art too. "What do you think of this design?" one student asked me. "I drew it myself". I nodded vaguely and turned the class back to finding a difference between metonymy and synecdoche. The following week, she turned up with her design tattooed on her shoulder.

In schools, however, it is argued that the uniform is linked to academic success. And there's no doubt that uniforms are pleasingly reassuring to the eye. Sometimes they can be beautiful. School was just streaming out on the Caribbean island of Tortola when I visited last month. The girls wore tunics in mustard with open-necked cream shirts, and the boys mustard short-sleeved shirts and cream trousers. A sea of colour and not a tie in sight. They looked at home in their uniforms and were a credit to their school.

Uniforms work with or without the tie, with a clip-on or with a floppy knot. Just around life's corner for all our learners there are interviews, jobs, and the many uniforms of grown-up life. Let's loosen up here on the uniform issue. Leave them kids alone and let's leave room for a bit of creativity and individuality when it comes to the school tie.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in media.

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