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It gives pupils a sense of belonging. It's egalitarian, and stops children being bullied because of what they wear. The discipline of wearing uniform improves behaviour and makes pupils proud of their school. It's practical and made to last, so in the long run it works out cheaper. On the other hand, it stifles individuality, it can be expensive and, if you're hard up, there's hardly any help to pay for it. Those acrylic jumpers and Teflon-coated blazers are uncomfortable. And it's so uncool. Arguments about uniform have been going on since they were first introduced into public schools hundreds of years ago. By the mid-20th century they were mandatory in nearly all schools, before being abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s. Their prevalence has also been a barometer of social attitudes, covering the scale from nonconformity to conservatism. But now they are making a comeback, with successive secretaries of state - and the chief inspector of schools - backing the notion that a shirt, tie and blazer not only improve the appearance of children but raise performance.

Why are uniforms back in fashion?

They've always had a kind of kitsch appeal, being worn ironically by rock and pop stars such as Angus Young, the guitarist with the heavy metal group ACDC, who always appears on stage in his shorts and blazer, and Britney Spears. The success of Schooldisco, a nightclub with a strict door policy of compulsory school uniform, and Harry Potter, have put uniforms firmly in the public consciousness. But the true reason behind the revival might have more to do with what they represent than what they look like. In April, David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, said restoring the formal trappings of school life such as prefects, assemblies, badges and uniforms, creates a sense of pride and belonging. "A rag-tag roll call is just not good enough if pupils are to come to school to learn," he told a conference of heads in Brighton. "Headteachers and governors have recognised a fundamental truth: that school can sometimes be the only place that provides security, stability and purpose for their pupils. Reinforcing that is crucial."

Official support

Successive secretaries of state have been vocal supporters. Former education secretary David Blunkett said repeated breaches of uniform rules should lead to expulsion, and his successor Estelle Morris sang its praises while appealing to schools to keep costs down. Charles Clarke has followed suit. "School uniforms are good for discipline and school ethos, giving pupils a real sense of identity with their school," he said in a statement earlier this year. "They can also help us tackle bad behaviour in the classroom. Heads who turn round failing schools tell us that uniforms play an important part in their work to raise standards." To back up his case, he quoted a Department for Education and Skills survey showing that 89 per cent of parents were in favour of uniform and a majority believed it improved academic performance and discipline. Abroad, there have been signs that school uniform is catching on. Three years ago, Philadelphia became the first US city to enforce a uniform policy when it decreed it had to be worn by pupils in all its 260 schools. In France, like most of Europe, uniforms are not widespread, but the issue of what children can wear to school has hit the headlines. School authorities have clashed with Muslim girls who wear the veil, saying religious adornment violates the secular tradition of state education. Several girls have been expelled from school for wearing headscarves and right-wing politicians have called for an anti-veil law. Here, a Peterborough secondary teacher was recently charged with religiously aggravated assault after allegedly forcing a Muslim pupil to remove her headscarf.

Why wear uniforms?

In the public schools where it began, school uniform was an indicator of social standing - both inside and outside the school. At Harrow, 200 years ago, second-years could wear all their coat buttons but one undone and turn their collars up, third-years could undo all their buttons and turn their collars down, whereas fourth-years could wear "grey flannel waistcoats, silk ends to their tails, brown shoes and buttonholes". The rules have relaxed a little since then, but many public schools retain idiosyncratic outfits that have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Most of the independent Bluecoat schools still in existence have dispensed with the garment that gave them their name, but a 16th century-style Tudor cassock, called the "Housey" uniform, is still worn by pupils at the Christ's Hospital, an independent school in Horsham, West Sussex. Being able to buy a uniform was an entry requirement to many aspiring schools and the Ragged School movement that sprung up in the mid-1800s was, as the name suggests, for pupils who couldn't afford the uniform necessary to attend a church school.

What about today?

Most schools have a uniform policy, although it is more widespread in secondary schools than primaries. Textile company Trutex has been making school uniforms for 140 years and supplies more than 1,000 schools. It sells around 2.5 million garments each year and has seen demand increase over the past five years. One of the fastest areas of growth has been for logos and school crests. "Schools are looking for specialist status, and school uniform plays a part in marking out schools as having this status," says Anna Housden, a spokeswoman for the company. "Sports status schools will choose sweatshirts and polo shirts, while language or maths schools are likely to go for a more traditional uniform of blazers, shirts and ties." She says many of their customers also cite security issues - it's easier to spot intruders in a school where everyone wears uniform - as a concern.

Uniform rules?

It's up to the board of governors to decide if they are going to have a school uniform and, if so, what it should look like. However, in the UK some heads are less than happy at the prospect. A Hampshire infants' school recently - but reluctantly - introduced uniforms after requests from parents, with the head complaining that they merely encouraged "corporate behaviour" and that "individuality is something to be celebrated". Pupils who returned to the King Edward VI community college in Totnes, Devon, this term will have noticed some changes, too. School uniform there - which used to be blue and black sweatshirts and polo shirts - was abolished just before the summer holidays. Head Stephen Jones asked governors in February to either smarten up the uniform or scrap it, as staff were spending "an inordinate amount of time" enforcing the dress code. The 1,700-pupil school had just been awarded performing arts college status and Mr Jones felt the "depressing" colour scheme did not fit in with their creative outlook. He disputes the link between uniform and high performance ("there has been no evidence to show that's the case"), and believes disciplining students over minor infringements of uniform distracts staff from the job of educating them.

Mr Jones says the school has a good relationship with its pupils and trusts them to come "appropriately dressed". Having worked in five schools - three with uniform and two without - he says he knows non-uniform can work. The fact that Totnes is a relatively liberal town and there is no other secondary in the area makes it easier.

It is, he says, "a hugely emotive subject" and a small group of parents have formed a protest group. But he says his postbag - he has had nearly 100 letters on the issue - has been overwhelmingly in support of the change. "Uniform is an English obsession," he believes. "If you have a uniform policy you have no option but to enforce it 100 per cent. It is about control, saying you will wear these clothes because we are telling you to. At King Edward, we are saying to our young people, 'you are individuals and we want you to be independent thinkers'."

Who wears the trousers?

After criticism of the complicated or excessive uniform requirements of some schools, the DfES recently issued advice to governors stipulating that they should be "receptive to any reasonable complaint" about their uniform policy. It should favour cheaper "off the peg" items and should not be "so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling socially excluded".

Non-compliance on grounds of religion, race or culture should not be punished, they said.

But that's not to say there have not been cases of discrimination. In 1999, 14-year-old Jo Hale protested about the uniform policy at Whickham school, in Gateshead, which stated that girls should wear skirts. Trousers were much more practical and would be warmer in winter, she argued, so girls ought to be allowed to wear them. The school refused to change its policy, so Jo took her case to the Equal Opportunities Commission, claiming sex discrimination. The school eventually relented - saying it could not justify the drain on school funds of a legal action - and changed its rules. A similar case, involving an unnamed school, was settled out of court last year.

So far no case of this kind has gone to court and set a legal precedent.

The commission advises any pupils who feel discriminated against to attempt to resolve the matter informally. For schools themselves, it says, "it's a good idea to have uniform codes which represent modern working lives". This businesslike approach is the policy at Thomas Telford school in Shropshire, one of the original city technology colleges and the highest performing state school in the country, where, once pupils reach the sixth form, they leave behind the uniform and come to school in office-style clothes.

The fashion police

Once a school decides to have a uniform policy, it then has the problem of enforcing it. Rules on what is acceptable can be open to interpretation and fashion-conscious pupils have always tried to accessorise or adapt their appearance. Rather than improving a school's image, an inflexible uniform policy with harsh punishments for non-compliance can sometimes result in unflattering publicity in the local paper. "We all know deep in our hearts that wearing uniform is a method of control," says Halla Beloff, a social psychologist at Edinburgh University. "Children recognise that on some level - that's why they say they hate uniform and why they spend a great deal of time and ingenuity modifying it.

"There is a sociological argument that by having rules you create criminality or deviance, and that if you don't have rules then deviance doesn't exist. Some schools have seen through this and say we will have a minimal uniform policy, but then to some extent that loses the point of having a uniform."

Colour me beautiful...

The propensity of colour to affect mood is well known, and so it is with school uniforms. Navy blue, which accounts for more than 30 per cent of Trutex's blazer and sweatshirt sales, is also the most popular colour for uniforms in the military and police. Halla Beloff says this correlation with obedience and order gives credibility to the argument that uniform can improve behaviour. "One of the aims of school is to get you used to the idea of obeying orders and to make you biddable. Sitting in rows, getting there on time, changing activity every 40 minutes, were all useful if you were going to be cannon fodder or factory fodder or office fodder. But it isn't so useful these days, when there is more of a call for creativity.

"As for the idea that it raises morale or gives a sense of pride in the school - I've never heard that said by a young person. It might work for very little children - they think it's thrilling that they are now in a real school. But very few 14-year-olds get a thrill from wearing school uniform."

The high cost of conformity

The average primary school uniform, including sports kit, costs pound;92 for girls and pound;115 for boys, according to a 2001 survey by the Family Welfare Association (FWA). This rises to pound;157 each by the time they reach secondary school.

There is no statutory help for poorer parents, unlike that given for school meals. Some local authorities do give discretionary grants but in recent years these have become far less common. The FWA found that 29 per cent of local authorities gave no help at all and 6 per cent only in "exceptional circumstances", meaning that more than a third of local authorities do not help poor families with what is an increasingly essential item.

A similar survey by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) put the one-off cost of equipping a child for secondary school at between pound;105 and pound;274, depending partly on where children live.

It also found that as uniform becomes more popular, help with paying for it is becoming scarcer. Between 1990 and 2000, eight of the 29 local authorities surveyed had withdrawn their uniform grants. In any case, the amount of money on offer - ranging from pound;25 in Cornwall to pound;109 in the City of London, and averaging just pound;45 - was nowhere near enough to meet the cost.

At risk of exclusion

Rather than being a social leveller, school uniform can discriminate against the poor. NACAB chief executive David Harker says this can leave pupils from less well-off families at risk of social exclusion; he has even counselled parents of children threatened with exclusion from school for not meeting uniform requirements. "Not having the proper uniform can mark out a child as being poor or even as being a troublemaker - failing to meet the most basic of school discipline policies. At best children feel uncomfortable. More seriously, they get picked on, choose to exclude themselves, or are even threatened with exclusion by the school."

To counteract the problem, the NACAB wants the Government to force local authorities to give financial aid for the purchase of uniforms.

School with a free supply

At the newly opened Bristol city academy, pupils and their parents don't have to worry about the cost of uniform - it's free. One of the school's sponsors has donated around pound;90,000 to kit out every one of the academy's 1,240 pupils this term with a 17-piece uniform and sports kit.

It's a change from the sweatshirt regime at St George's - the community school that has been replaced by the city academy. "The feeling was that it would give us a lift and a sense of identity for the new school," says headteacher Ray Priest.

The biggest problem has been in the logistics of ordering and distributing almost 20,000 items at once; several thousand of them were the wrong size and had to be sent back. But the light blue and red themed uniform has been an instant hit with pupils. "They are really keen. Some of them like it so much they have been wearing it socially," says Mr Priest. Seeing the city academy's name on the trendy black sports jackets being worn around town has prompted calls from members of the public curious about the new school.

"We want to get on the map for what we achieve," says Mr Priest, "but this has definitely given kids a sense of belonging."

New designs

The John Lewis Partnership has sold school uniform for 50 years and is the exclusive stockist for 1,300 schools - half of them state schools. It's a business that generates pound;18 million each year and the company's chief buyer of schoolwear and children's shoes, Mark Jeynes, has noticed a shift towards more traditional styles. "In the past 18 months a lot of schools have changed their attitude and are going back to the days of caps and boaters," he says. Others are ditching staples such as ties and blazers for a modern look. Trutex has introduced a new range to cater for this, adapting the standard white blouse and black trousers with fitted, ruched shirts and hipsters.

At Aldercar school, in Langley Mill, near Nottingham, they went one better.

Pupils who were fed up with acrylic jumpers and shapeless trousers enlisted the help of Paul Smith, the Nottingham-born designer, in reshaping their school uniform. The project was part of the joinedupdesignforschools initiative created by designers John and Frances Sorrell. Rather than scrap school uniform (only one in 10 voted for that), Aldercar's pupils wanted Paul Smith's designers to come up with a casual but still smart alternative - including hooded fleeces and open-necked fitted shirts. "A uniform gives the school identity," said Adam Grice, Aldercar's head boy at the time. "I wouldn't like to be in a school without a uniform; it wouldn't feel like a school environment."

The school introduced a version of the Paul Smith designs - slightly amended to keep down costs - and today it is offered alongside the ordinary uniform in the school shop. It's a solution that keeps both traditionalists and trendsetters happy.

National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report is downloadable from: supplier Trutex: Welfare Association: Its report, Grants for School Uniforms, is available from 501-505 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AU. Tel: 020 7254 6251. Joinedupdesignforschools:

Did you know?

* Uniforms can play an important part in raising standards in failing schools, says Education Secretary Charles Clarke

* A survey by the Department for Education and Skills shows that 89 per cent of parents are in favour of it and most believe it improves academic performance and discipline

* The average primary school uniform, including sports kit, costs pound;92 for girls and pound;115 for boys, says the Family Welfare Association.

This rises to pound;157 each by secondary school

* Navy blue is one of the most popular colours, accounting for more than 30 per cent of one manufacturer's blazer and sweatshirt sales

* Philadelphia is the first US city to insist that all pupils in its schools wear uniform

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