I hated my uniform at Therfield Comprehensive School in the 1970s.
It was one of the reasons I couldn’t wait to leave. There was a thick blazer with pockets that weren’t deep enough, and a school tie. What idiot invented ties? There was even a school cap that nobody in their right senses would choose to wear- I stopped wearing mine on the first day, after realising I was the only person on the playground with a hat. So when it came to A-levels, I was off down to the road to the local technical college where I could study English, Sociology and Geography with a lot of other non-conformists, and somehow manage to scrape together enough ability to go to Newcastle University, two years later. At Ewell Technical College I was allowed to wear Levi jeans and a Capital Radio T-shirt, and no-one in authority minded or cared. Bliss. Jeans were so magnificently 1970s and rebellious- so we all wore them like a uniform, when we could, as you do, when you’re 16 or 17.
But roll on a few years to 2016… and now I’m 100% in favour of school uniform, and here’s why.
We live in a modern age of cheap fashion clothing, courtesy of the likes of Primark and the sweated factory workers of the Far East. (Nothing wrong with Primark, mind you, providing they look after their workforce and pay them a decent wage. Cheap clothes you can afford, are always going to be better than expensive clothes that you can’t.) And with all this fashion so readily available, our little darlings naturally want to look good. Nothing wrong with that either. Clothes are an expression of personality in colour and cut and style, and some people establish a ‘look’ that‘s individual and almost a work of art in itself. Mrs PGD is one excellent example.
But school is not intended to be simply a social venue for the expression of personality. You’re there to learn and take stuff into your tiny mind, in an artificial environment of 30 young people crammed together into one room, led and encouraged in their quest for knowledge by one adult. Now… that’s a big Ask. It’s an even bigger Ask if Our Cheryl or Sean or more interested in expressing their own personality in what they’re wearing, rather than in trying to get their minds around the 9 times table, Tudor history, the ozone layer, or Why Capital Letters Are Important. When they are Not Getting It, their fashionable clothes sporting the correct designer label can often be part of Cheryl or Sean’s problem, because their little minds are too preoccupied with what Stacey or Rajiv are thinking about them, to bother with what that irritating person at the front is trying to get them to do. And that’s what happens when the natural desire to look good and be thought well of, is overtaking the natural desire to learn. Our consumer society places great value on personal appearance, but it also breeds an unhealthy narcissism that affects the kids, who are in themselves a massive market for big business. And some parents buy into this too.
‘His hair’s an expression of who he is!’ said some dumb-cluck mother on the TV once, after publicly complaining that her 10-year-old son was told by the Head Teacher that he couldn’t wear hair-gel in school. (I think she was wearing hair extensions, herself.) Sorry, love, no. That hair-gel isn’t an expression of your son, that’s just the stuff he can buy down at the supermarket. In school, ‘Who He Is’ needs to be expressed with a much more expensive determination to acquire new knowledge, test new skills, ask hard questions, and connect with others using all the means that his school can provide. Your kid’s attitude to his hair is simply an Attitude that blocks so much else happening that is good, and you’re not helping him. So many of our young people are getting sucked like this into a nuclear arms race of having the best trainers / shoes / bling (etc) in their peer group, not knowing that the official Cold War US strategy for competing in the nuclear arms race was called Mutually Assured Destruction… literally, MAD. And that’s where the dress-‘em-up competition goes, in terms of shallow personalities, superficial understanding of other people’s worth, and mounting debt. Having cool trainers doesn’t make you a better person.
In the so-called Developing World, they often think differently. There, school uniform signifies a desire to make more of yourself, as an aspiration to be the best you can be. In places like Kenya or Tanzania, saving up for a child’s school uniform can eat up the family budget- but they do it, because it symbolises Hope for their children and their family. However, in the so-called Developed West, we sometimes see Education as a form of social control designed to squeeze young minds into pre-formed packets similar to that imagined in Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ video that stupidly and memorably intoned ‘We don’t Need No Education’ (or grammar neither, obviously.) Sometimes, school admittedly can become a grades factory, especially with our current obsession with gaining academic grades as a tool to Getting On in life. (I wouldn’t like to be studying for GCSEs today, judging from the homework my friends’ kids have to do.) But that frenzied drive for results is simply another twisting of education’s purpose- to bring out the best of a child’s ability (‘educare’- Latin: to draw out what lies within’). Obsessive interest in exam results, can be just as damaging as obsessive interest in personal appearance.
But imposing a strict uniform policy certainly does improve pupil attitudes if done fairly. I saw it happen in a school where a child’s wearing of Bermuda shorts to school, kicked off a whole staffroom discussion that finally led (with consultation) to our Governors adopting a realistic uniform regime (sweatshirts, not blazers and ties) that everybody liked, including the parents. Pupils now knew the score when it came to getting dressed in the morning, and invariably kept it, because they knew we had made the decision for their benefit. And yes, we teachers also started spotting something new about ourselves after the uniform was introduced, after meeting our new pupils for the first time in September. We were noticing their individual faces much more, and not their clothes. Odd, that.
So I don’t think imposing a school uniform is an empty authoritarian gesture- and Head Teachers enforcing school rules aren’t little Hitlers (another insult to the fallen). They’re actually freeing up children’s minds for the real business of school. We can all get distracted from tackling the most important things by our own idiot enthusiasms- and despite my own personal dislike of the uniform I had to wear as a teenager, I’m now glad we had it for those important years when the most important thing was about learning how to learn.
What do you think?