Five years ago I greeted the new academic school year with joy. Both my children had reached the age when they no longer had to wear school uniform.
For 15 years, the last fortnight of August not only meant mourning the loss of summer, but also the annual stress of suddenly-too-small clothes, and the increasingly frantic searches for skirts that were long enough, trousers that were a particular shade of charcoal grey, shoes that were black enough and PE kits that, despite living in a capitalist society with huge superstores full of relatively inexpensive sports equipment, could only be bought from one tiny shop because it was a specific colour with a specific badge.
Back then, I called bull on this ridiculousness. Like tens of thousands of parents across the land over the past few weeks, I began to question exactly what this was all about.
And, because I’m in the privileged position of being able to write down these rants and having a platform to share them with the world, rather than just my family in the car as we were stuck in traffic heading towards another shoe shop, I did just that.
I called for an end to the madness. Not just some of it – all of it.
Because once you think about it enough, the whole pretence falls like a house of cards.
The August nonsense quickly radicalised me – I realised that it’s all rubbish and should be done away with. The arguments in favour of school uniform have crumbled to dust in recent years, and the reality is increasingly ridiculous.
Voicing the opinion that school uniform is an absurd nonsense that damages children’s education, turns teachers into petty jobsworths and headteachers into power-mad dictators who have lost sight of the real reason they are there, certainly caused controversy.
But each year since, more and more parents and teachers have come over and seen the light. And the past 18 months, where everything changed because of a pandemic, have shown even more clearly why I’m right.
So, as covid and Brexit ravage supply chains and parents are phoning school uniform shops daily to check if a certain pair of socks they ordered in July has actually arrived, let’s take stock and remind ourselves exactly why this charade has to stop. Now.
School uniforms are, and I’ll say it up front and then spend the rest of this rant defending myself, ridiculous.
They are anachronistic. They are expensive. They are restricting. They are discriminatory. They belong in the 20th century. They don’t do what they are supposed to do. All the reasons why people think they are a good idea are crumbling, and we can do without them.
So let’s go through them one by one.
When – and why – did a branded blazer become the norm?
There has been an increasing move in recent years towards the smartening up of school uniform. We parents have all noticed that. Most secondary schools have switched to a blazer, shirt, tie and smart trouser combo, and that trend is even seeping down to primary schools.
The trend began in the ‘sink schools’, and would follow a particular pattern: A ‘super-head’ would be parachuted in to a failing school and – as well as clearing out the rubbish teachers from the staff room, putting up proper security fences, expelling all the really, very naughty kids and enforcing stricter discipline – one of the first things he or she did was change the uniform from a scruffy jumper to a blazer, shirt and tie.
Educationalists, headteachers and supportive parents point to research that suggested a failing school’s results improved, and did so more quickly, with a smart uniform, strictly enforced.
It was an outward sign the school ‘meant business’, and the kids responded, so the message went.
Increasingly, it is a mantra that has permeated all secondary schools, as they become academies and increasingly style themselves, with ‘houses’ and the like, as private schools you don’t have to pay for.
The recent report revealing how the upper levels of power in our adult society are still filled with former private school pupils is interesting. It’s as if our state schools are modelling themselves on the Etons of this world. It’s as if they believe kids somehow get posher manners or are better behaved if they are wearing a cumbersome blazer or a tie.
But while I can see the logic, it’s still not proven. It’s actually likely more obvious measures, like improving teaching and cracking down on discipline, have a more immediate and obvious impact on achievement.
French kids are better behaved than English kids
Where this pretence breaks down, or this Emperor’s New Clothes idea is exposed as patent nonsense, is the moment the blazer-and-tie wearing English kids go on exchanges across the Channel.
Hardly any schools in France, Germany or Spain, Sweden, Norway or Denmark, have school uniforms at all. And the jeans and t-shirt wearing teens that come over on the return visit are almost always far more impeccably behaved, respectful and hard-working than the English children they have awkwardly twinned with for a fortnight.
Talk to any parent or teacher, or indeed, member of society, in the likes of Scandinavia, Germany or France about the ‘issue’ of school discipline and performance being connected to what the children wear and they will look at you with bafflement. They literally think we are bonkers for thinking that what children wear has an impact on how they behave or learn.
Children in Normandy, Saxony, Denmark or Poland don’t go to school looking like a member of the Bullingdon Club every day, and they don’t skip class to sniff glue round the back of the bike sheds, just because they are wearing jeans.
Headteachers, parents and maybe a lot of the older generation will throw their hands up at the prospect of teenagers being allowed to ‘wear what they want’. Yes, how mature! How mature would it be to say to young people, ‘yes, you can wear what you want, but you still have to behave within the rules’. Treating young people like young adults and individuals not anonymous drones who have to wear the same clothes would be an enlightened way to start improving education in this country.
The Great Uniform Rip-Off
The other great argument in favour of school uniform that needs debunking is this one of cost. The blazer brigade say that having a school uniform is far better for those cash-strapped parents because it means they can buy a couple of school jumpers, a couple of pairs of trousers or skirts and that’s it, end of, they don’t have to fork out on the latest expensive fashions.
This argument was the one of the main ones proposed during the first great wave of school uniform introduction back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It was true then, I’ll give you that. But the world has changed now.
For a start, the uniforms schools are forcing you to buy are massively more expensive than a couple of school jumpers and a pair of generic smart trousers. A recent survey of parents found they spent an average of £7,000 kitting out one child for school during its career, and the majority of that was on school uniform.
Blazers can burn a £50 hole in a pocket – at least – and of course, it has to be the official one. They are often designed in such a way so that you can’t just buy a ‘blank’ one and sew the school badge on, saving the crafty among us a good £20 a time.
School trousers and skirts have to be from ‘approved suppliers’, ties must show the logo and, guess what, can only be bought in the official outlet.
Schools and their uniform suppliers could give Premiership football clubs – who flog their notoriously ever-changing replica shirts for £60 a pop – a run for their exploitation money. Except schools are worse: Football fans don’t get sent home from the match, or put in detention, for not wearing the latest club strip.
It’s little wonder the Office of Fair Trading investigated and found parents were being fleeced. Let’s just put that into context, shall we? Rip-off Britain is so entrenched, even our schools are party to it, just because we all think they should make our children dress up like Billy Bunter.
This great school uniform rip-off has never been exposed as clearly as this year. With a lorry driver shortage, covid staffing issues and Brexit supply chain breakdowns, that ‘official supplier’ is in big trouble this year.
Pretty much all of Bristol’s schools now use just one company – Monkhouse. It bought out the Famous Schoolwear chain and now has a monopoly on the supply of school uniform to scores of schools across the Bristol area.
Back in early summer it started warning schools there would be problems this year, and it’s proved true.
So bad are the problems that thousands have signed a petition calling for an end to this madness. Parents are facing the prospect of sending their children to school next week knowing that they are risking getting that phone call to pick them up because they haven’t got the right shoes, or tie, or blazer, or jumper, or trousers. That’s the worst case scenario. How many pupils will be put in isolation for not having the regulation skirt length, after a growth-spurt saw their knees say goodbye to the hem between June and September?
The most sanctimonious of school headteachers in Bristol say parents have plenty of time to get the uniforms sorted, and end up punishing pupils for their parents’ lack of organisation or money. That’s bad enough – shocking even – but this year, even the most organised of parents have been reporting that items they’ve ordered in July still haven’t come in.
Are pupils really going to be denied their rights to an education because they don’t have the right clothing this year of all years? It’s bad enough any day or any year, but this year there has to be some kind of grace period. There has to be some sort of allowances made.
And if the headteachers are worried that seeing half their classmates being allowed to ‘get away’ with not having the proper tie will lead to a breakdown in wider discipline, then I’ve got news for you – it’s not a great endorsement of your powers of running a school if a few errant ties and unofficial cardigans can lead to anarchy.
And then, headteachers, take a step back. If you’re one of the many decent headteachers in Bristol, you’ll have spent the past 18 months actively working to make sure your most vulnerable children, the ones in the most challenging of home circumstances, actually have enough to eat. Then have laptops to be able to learn from home. Then you and your teachers have been concerned about their mental health. The pandemic has affected young people disproportionately, curtailed 18 months of experiences and development for so many.
And then what are you going to do? Put them in isolation for having a blank white polo shirt, or not wearing a tie? Or having a slightly different haircut? Really? Is that really the headteacher or school leadership team you are?
So this year of all years, as the parent who set up the petition said so eloquently, ‘something has to give’. We can’t carry on like this.
It would be CHEAPER to send them in their own clothes
Bristol’s monopoly uniform supplier is Monkhouse, a fourth-generation Manchester family firm. When I contacted them about the petition this week, I had an email back from Mr Monkhouse himself, sending apologies and acknowledging issues. So far, so wholesome.
But while it used to be a family firm valiantly kitting out the nation’s children, such is the money to be made in the great school uniform rip off that it’s not surprising to discover Monkhouse, who bought up Famous Schoolwear, was itself bought up by private equity.
The people ultimately responsible for supplying school uniforms to almost all Bristol schoolchildren is now majority owned by MML Capital Europe VI Equity SA, a private equity fund based in Jersey and registered in Luxembourg.
While parents have absolutely no choice but to pay these people for branded items that are increasingly expensive, ‘ordinary’ clothes have plummeted in price.
Regular, generic ‘back to school’ gear in Asda or Sainsbury’s or Tesco or one of myriad online retailers is now very cheap. Let’s leave aside the issue of Bangladeshi sweat shops for a moment and realise that even if a school is so hellbent on dictating what their pupils should wear so they look ‘smart’, it could easily be done for a fraction of the price if schools weren’t also so hellbent on forcing pupils to wear white polo shirts with the school badge on, and depriving children of their rights to an education just because their plain white polo shirt doesn’t have a picture of a horse and the name of the school embroidered on it.
When you pick it apart like that, the nonsense collapses like a house of cards.
But let’s go further – why even add the expense of a completely different wardrobe for school anyway? While uniforms have got so, so expensive, ‘ordinary’ clothes have plummeted in price. A pair of jeans for a 14-year-old are cheaper now than they were 20 years ago. You can, in Asda or Primark, or any of the pile-em-high stores that have filled our retail parks, clothe a growing child for a year for less than £100 if you are determined. That’s the reality for a lot of people.
So the philanthropic nature of school uniform is no longer a valid argument. And in any case, it never made sense. Most children – teenagers especially – change out of their school uniform as soon as they get through the door at 3.45pm. They need just the same amount of ‘casual’ clothes anyway.
The convenience myth
Each year this rant is ranted, a lot of parents get in touch to vouch for the convenience of school uniform. It’s so much easier, they say, to know exactly what their child is going to wear every weekday morning. Imagine the drama and time every morning if schools didn’t have uniforms, and there were – heaven forbid – choices.
Yes, I hear you. I’ve had two teenage daughters who care about fashion and stuff. That’s fine. In that case, buy the basic Tesco schoolwear stuff and say ‘this is what you’re wearing for school’. Any drama following that is down to them.
The drama, stress and argument at the moment is down to the compulsory nature of school uniform and the ridiculousness of the ‘branded items’ rip-off – that’s what’s causing so many problems this summer, that’s what will cause so many kids to be put in isolation or sent home – end that and there could be no stress at all.
The bullying myth
Then there’s the argument about bullying. Having a school uniform levels the playing field, they say.
It means the poor kids don’t get picked on for having shoddy clothes, they say.
It means the trendy rich kids can’t flaunt their wealth with the latest fashions, using it as a weapon against the sartorially-inept, the geeks whose mums would put them in flares with leather squares on the knee if there was no school uniform. (I’m over it, I really am…)
Sorry, this might have been the case in a Bratpack movie in the 1980s, but the playground and its teenagers are way, way more sophisticated than that.
For a start, even with the leveller of a school uniform, kids know exactly who the trendy rich kids are and who are the fashion losers. Whatever the school uniform is, it will get modified and personalised somehow to reveal, perhaps only to the kids themselves, where someone is on the cool or impoverished spectrum.
And today’s technology-native smartphone-using, WhatsApp-zapping, Snapchat-messaging youngsters have far, far more sophisticated ways, means and things to bully each other about.
Most bullying takes place now on DMs and Instagram, in chat rooms and texts. And given children’s clothes are pretty affordable anyway, and most kids outside school wear the same clothes their parents pick up in Asda or Matalan anyway, it’s increasingly less likely a lack of school uniform will lead to bullying.
In fact, in 2021, the reverse is true – because of the draconian ways schools obsess with uniforms.
What happens in reality is that schools impose a school uniform and then spend so much time, energy and concentration enforcing its little foibles (“Jenkins, your laces are grey, not black!”), they miss the girl in the corner getting bullied into sexting after school.
The discipline myth
Then there is the inherent ridiculousness of the concept of a school uniform as a discipline tool.
Wherever you draw the line, kids will try and cross it
You can be as strict as you like, but it’s something that is always challenged by children who so obviously need to know where the line is, and try to cross it.
How it works is like this: A school will say what the pupils have to wear. Some have a relaxed ‘school jumper, no jeans’ kind of approach. Or there’s the draconian schools (and this is most of them now) who issue not just a prescribed set of clothes, but also a long list of acceptable accessories – sock colour, hair colour, hair style, hair length, colour of laces, style of shoe, length of skirt, and so on.
The problem officious schools like this find is that once they start deciding they need to make a judgement on what they find an acceptable colour for shoelaces, or hair colour, or number of buttons on a shirt, their pupils will start to expose its obvious absurdity.
Pupils wanting to rebel find it ridiculously easy: Wear blue laces and get put in detention, and then question (with a certain amount of justification, it has to be said) what possible damage having blue laces was doing to anyone, and why it requires the wearer to be deprived of their education?
Pupils want to dye their hair? Some colours are allowed – bleach blonde, obviously, but not blue or green or pink. How about red? Maybe not a scarlet, but what about gingery-red? Or russet, ochre, peach?
Aren’t we supposed to be paying teachers, to TEACH not police hair colour?
It is inherently ridiculous – teachers should be there to teach, not take a colour chart to school to see who’s got ‘acceptable’ hair.
Teachers end up having to make subjective judgements and no matter how hard they try, that’ll always end up being unfair to someone: “Your hair is too spiky, Jones! Your haircut is too much like a Mohican, Thompson!”
“It’s a short, back and sides, sir!” “The shaved part goes too high on your head, Thompson, and it’s too long on top”…. (Parent comes in demanding to know why son spent the day in ‘isolation’)… “His hair is too much like a Mohican, Mrs Thompson.” “Pardon?”
Can someone actually do a bit of teaching, please?
What ends up happening is that school uniform rules are enforced for the sake of enforcing rules. They serve no other purpose than to be something to be obeyed, like in the army. In fact, the army have rules for a reason.
The object ends up being twofold. Firstly, to teach the children that they have to do what they are told, regardless of the absurdity, just because the teachers are in charge. It’s as if they want to instil some sort of life lesson about obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous.
It’s the ‘Because I said so’ method of discipline and in the military that’s fine – lives depend on it – but with a generation of young people? It’s just weak. It doesn’t engender respect, because young people can see the inherent ridiculousness of it.
Schools right across our country spout nice words about nurturing the individual, about fostering creativity, but when it comes to one of the earliest ways a fresh newly-minted young adult expresses their individuality and creativity – the way they look – it is stamped upon remorselessly.
Secondly, it gives poor teachers and poor school leaders the opportunity to discipline unruly kids – but not tackle the unruly behaviour. A child in a lesson is disruptive? Don’t deal with the disruptive behaviour, or the underlying reason for it because that’s too much of a challenge – just find something wrong on their school uniform and send them out of class.
Teachers do a magnificent job at managing, controlling and shaping young people into young adults. They educate them brilliantly, on the whole, and it’s a tough job few of us would do and even fewer could do. I’m sure they would rather be just teaching and mentoring than be ordered to check the colour of shoelaces every morning.
School uniforms are sexist
And then there is the inherent sexism of the school uniform – for are school uniforms reinforcing – or even teaching – sexism?
Thankfully, most schools now allow girls to wear trousers. But skirts are a big issue for the draconian schools. For generations, it was commonplace for the schoolmistress to make the girls kneel on their skirts to show they were long enough, and little has changed.
It is true that, if left unchecked, some girls would end up with little more than belts around their waists. Anyone who has seen a gaggle of teenage girls making their way to school of a morning will see at least one of them hike up their skirt once they are out of the parent or teacher’s eye.
It’s a moral minefield, but I’m a bit radical on this one, so bear with me and hear me out.
I’m of the opinion that maybe, just maybe, we should aim towards a society where anyone, a girl or a boy, can wear whatever clothes they want. Teachers, parents, and society in general to an extent, think it is ‘not the done thing’ for a girl at school to wear a miniskirt. The widely held view is that this is unbecoming somehow, and distracts the boys.
Perhaps schools should instead concentrate on educating boys that girls and their legs aren’t objects to be ogled over, no matter what they are wearing, rather than enforcing some kind of Victorian values over the sight of a girl’s leg.
Taking it to its logical thought process, schools forcing girls to wear a skirt of a certain length is in the same sexist ballpark as judges and police chiefs who say girls shouldn’t dress in miniskirts because it might increase the chances of them being raped. It’s the same moral position, the same logic. And it is sexist to the core. If there is an issue with girls in ‘too short’ short skirts, the issue is with the beholder, not the girl.
The Life Preparation Myth
“Well at least they will be prepared for the world of work…”
The final tenet of the outdated school uniform mantra is that it prepares our young people for the outside world: That if they look smart and are used to wearing a shirt and tie and jacket at school, then the world of work won’t be a shock to them.
Has anyone seen the world of work recently? Smart casual is the new norm. Post-pandemic, who is going back into the office in a suit? Half of Bristol has been working in their pyjamas for the past 18 months
Even when the offices do reopen, no one is going to be wearing a shirt and tie. Women don’t wear ties to work and increasingly nor do men. Adults learn how to dress according to the context and their environment – it’s a quick learning curve, but it doesn’t need ten years in a blazer at school to prepare for.
At one of the West’s most innovative and fastest growing companies, Dyson, ties are actually banned. Sir James believes they restrict creativity. His workers wear what they want, and guess what? His company hasn’t descended into anarchy because of it.
What’s interesting is that more and more service industry jobs are now requiring a uniform, as even your local mechanics’ garage or fast food restaurant gets its own corporate branding. The good ones are polo shirts with a logo or a fleece – not blazers and ties. The bad ones – well, we all know some hideous examples. But the point is, kids coming out of school getting a job as a delivery driver or a plumber learn pretty quickly that they have to wear the polo shirt or get told off by the boss. It’s not hard.
The ridiculousness of Bristol’s schools is that, come September 7, 2021, the ‘smartest’ people going about their daily business, the ones in the most formal clothing, will be under 16 years old. Even police officers have fleeces and open-necked shirts now.
They breach disability discrimination rules
There are record numbers of children in Bristol’s schools who have been diagnosed as being on what is known as the autistic spectrum. They have ‘special needs’. Schools, by law, should do everything reasonable to make sure they don’t discriminate against them, and provide them with the same access to education as everyone else.
One of the most common features of being neuro-atypical like this is hyper-sensitivity – being so overwhelmed by wearing a certain type of fabric that the feeling of it against your skin takes over your thoughts and makes you uncomfortable, distracted, unable to focus or, at its worst, it’s intolerable – children will literally have a meltdown if made to wear these clothes.
And yet schools do. It’s a symptom of a wider problem of a lack of understanding, training and catering for neuro-atypical pupils – there is a deep ‘SEND crisis’ in this city that goes much further than making autistic kids wear clothes they simply can’t bear, but it’s part of it.
We’re all suckers for the uniform myth
Are we really picking our child’s school based on the uniform? When we choose a school for our 11-year-old we see the swish pictures on the website and subconsciously think: “Ooo, they look smart in their blazer, it must be a good school, they look like they go to Harrow”.
Are we parents really that stupid? We must be, because one of the reasons schools are going more strict and smart with uniforms is the competition that has been injected into schools, fighting to attract children. The only way to go, after all schools insist on blazers and ties, will be mortar boards, frock coats or Hogwarts gowns. Where will it end?
So I say end this nonsense by banning school uniform. If you can’t do that, at least ban the compulsory nature of it. If you can’t even do that, at least end the great school uniform rip off and scale back the scam that sees parents absolutely have to buy a branded item of clothing at a marked up price from a monopoly supplier, when the kids could look just as smart in a £7 outfit from Asda.
But above all, end the practice that sees children denied their basic right of education based on what clothes they were or how their hair is coloured or styled.
If you shudder at that notion, then take a long hard look at yourself. It won’t lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. It won’t lead to an uprising of anarchy and bad behaviour in our schools. Every other country in Western Europe shuns the school uniform. They can do it, why can’t we?
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