These days, every educationalist from Michael Gove down is a fan of the dreaded blazer/tie combo. Exactly how do they really think they’re helping prepare kids for the ‘real world’?
Would you like me to tell you what I am wearing? Not in a chatline kind of way – this is the Guardian, for goodness sake. I am wearing the Guardian uniform, which is whatever you imagine it to be. Earrings made of chard? Hemp waistcoats? Some colour blocking? It is, bizarrely enough, not a shirt and tie and blazer, but these are the extremely odd clothes we make children wear to “instil discipline” in them. All right-thinking people say that. But I don’t. Having had to buy a school uniform this week, I felt as dispirited as ever by the ridiculousness of it.
Unsurprisingly, I was never a fan of my own school uniform, which was bottle-green with knickers made of felt. We were constantly lectured about the activities we were not allowed be seen doing in it. In a hazy way, I remember them as basically eating chips and talking to boys. “I’ll just take it off then Miss,” I used to say, for I was annoying then as I am now.
The price of the uniform itself was an issue. The wear and tear of it was an issue. We couldn’t afford it. Once I had a Saturday job that helped, but naturally I bought myself some lime-green plastic platforms. Weirdly they were not acceptable as school shoes unless my mum wrote a note. What medical condition required the wearing of these beauties I can only guess, but my mum’s notes I now look on with awe, the end line nearly always being: “She is in a phase.”
Did this uniform instil in me a sense of oneness with my school, or Ideological State Apparatus as I would later realise it to be? Did it resolve the class issue? Er … not exactly. In those days we didn’t have stupid fashion words like “vintage” and “pre-loved”, we had hand-me-downs, and really, I don’t know a modern child who wants a second-hand uniform.
The myth of uniform is that it is a social leveller, an equaliser. And pushes up results? Then show me how. Many European countries with good schools don’t have uniforms. Bill Clinton thought back in the 90s that it might be the answer to gang-related violence. It wasn’t.
No uniform does what it says on the tin. It is about conforming. It heartens many a parent to see their child as somehow ready for work. Mr Gove of the Bible loves a uniform. Indeed the fetishisation of school uniform is no longer a pervy thing; it is education policy. The academies are bonkers on it, parents like it and many children say it makes their lives easier. Labour and Tories think much the same.
Teachers vary, some reporting that too much of their time is spent on policing clothing violations. If education is to be about conforming and not drawing out talent, I guess that’s fine, though the kind of overall worn in France for science or art would surely suffice. Uniform covers up many social ills. Sometimes, even poor parenting. (“Well they were always clean and in the right uniform.”) The signifiers of class and money are simply rejigged around bags, phone and pens. It is as it ever was.
This nostalgia for a uniform, reinforced by the retrograde fantasy of Harry Potter, is based on emotion not reason. Evidence does not come into it. Does all this produce better results? Happier children? Does apeing private schools in appearance but not resources gloss over the dire reality? What we really have, alongside the increasing prevalence of the ghastly blazer/tie combo, is increasing social inequality. You could map it out but don’t ask me to, as I missed an awful lot of school on account of this kind of attitude. “Don’t ask questions, girl, and put your tie on properly.”
Don’t ask questions about the world of work that we are preparing children for. At the moment it looks as if some will work for free in some superstore uniform. Get them used to it early. Compliance. Zero tolerance. The best days of your life.
In the Uniform Me shop this week it was hot and sweaty, as nasty polo shirts were pulled on. Skirts must be knee-length. That will stop teen sex, I am sure. And I note the return of over-the-knee socks, which of course do not resemble stockings in any way at all. At least the stuff I bought was cheap. Some inner-city uniforms are close to £300.
When I have had jobs where I had to wear a uniform – in restaurants and hospitals – I just got on with it. I saw the need. But to learn? To learn what? Again, I ask: where is the evidence that uniform works?
Since I bought my daughter’s uniform she has, of course, had it on all the time, though school doesn’t start until next week. She is expressing herself or getting at me. She makes me laugh. But the idea saddens me that when she gets to secondary school individuality must be knocked out of her as early as possible via the reinforcement of petty rules about shirts. This is indeed preparation for the real world. Of uniform thinking.