Back to school in style: Traditional uniforms are popular with nostalgic parents and trendy pupils, finds Sarah Lonsdale

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SCHOOL uniform is amazingly adaptable to the dictates of fashion. 'Last year, when grunge was all the rage, we were flooded with demands for extra-large black jumpers and black tights,' says Maggie Couzens, merchandise buyer for Peter Jones's school uniform department. This year, fashion conscious 16-year-olds are asking for tiny tight-fitting jumpers and huge hanging-out shirts - in the school colours, naturally.

DIY customising is also part of the game. Back in the Sixties, we were rolling our skirts round waistbands until our knickers showed; in the Seventies, 17 earrings were obscured by messed- up hair and discreet, but nevertheless punky, safety pins that held checked gingham skirts together.

Earlier this year, school- babe style was the hottest on the catwalk as supermodels dressed in ties and mini pinafore dresses to mimic the High School. But the look is also more popular than ever with those who are supposed to be wearing it, especially with increasing numbers of opted-out schools switching back to compulsory uniform. Kinch & Lack, Britain's biggest independent school outfitters, reports rapidly growing demand - an increase of around 25 per cent over the past three years.

'For many of the one thousand new grant maintained schools it is a way of showing to parents that certain standards matter,' says Adrian Pritchard, director of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre.

'Uniforms are popular with parents - they conjure back those halcyon days of 40 years ago when they were at school themselves. They also represent savings. Sending a child to school in the latest fashions is terribly expensive. And by ironing out the differences, children are less likely to stand out as poor or scruffy or square.'

This theory is spreading to California, where a new state law has been passed which permits schools to impose uniforms instead of allowing jeans and T-shirts. This is to prevent gangs, who identify themselves by wearing certain colours, from carrying their rivalries into the classroom (or mistakenly attacking unfortunates who just happen to be wearing the wrong shade).

Uniforms don't always represent a financial saving. Woolworths boasts that it can kit a child out for under pounds 20 (skirt or trousers, shirt and jumper). Marks & Spencer can do it for comfortably under pounds 30. Peter Jones department store offers blazer, shirt, two jumpers, three blouses, knickers, socks and coat for pounds 120 - though the blazer, at pounds 16.50, is polyester. A more expensive wool blazer is around pounds 40.

When schools lay down conditions such as the minimum wool content for jumpers and coats, or insist that a child needs six shirts because the laundry at boarding school is only done once a week, costs rise. The cheapest that Peter Jones could equip a child in such regulation gear is pounds 250.

But expense is not parents' main worry, according to a survey by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, which has 10,000 member schools. Seventy per cent of parents said they preferred a uniform, but while half said uniforms are too expensive, 80 per cent complained about poor size availability and 75 per cent about poor quality.

How do pupils feel about their uniforms? Surprisingly positive, according to our guinea pigs.

Matthew Cunningham, 15

Broadland High School, Hoveton, Norfolk (mixed comprehensive). Grey trousers in first two years, then black trousers, white shirts, bottle green jumpers, green and gold tie. Plus sports kits. Boys not allowed earrings or white socks. (Girls are not allowed cardigans - and skirts must be within three inches of the knee, whether up or down.) Total cost: around pounds 120.

'I'm not wild about the uniform. It's not what you would call trendy, but at least it stops the worry about what we're going to wear in the morning. Some of the rules are very petty. There was controversy here recently when they sent one boy home and made him get his hair cut. The rule about not letting boys wear earrings is sexist. I try to get away with wearing different colour socks sometimes. Some of the girls' ideas of what three inches is are wildly out. It's nice to have something to rebel against, it's part of going to school.'

Suzanne Fowler, 13

Perse School for Girls, Cambridge (girls' independent day school). Navy skirt, jumper with school crest (a pelican), blue and white checked shirt, blue and white summer dress, navy oilskin jacket. Religious necklaces only. Earrings in senior school only. Juniors wear sunhats. Total cost: around pounds 150.

'The shirt neck is a bit too open and we all get cold necks in the winter. The skirts are far too tight and we're always ripping them because so many of us cycle to school. They've recently allowed us to wear tracksuits into school and change when we get there. The summer dresses have drop waists and make us all look fat, so we all wear really long jumpers over them. We try to get away with bright hair-bands which annoys the teachers.'

Caroline Moir, 17

King's School, Canterbury (mixed public boarding school). Black jacket and pinstripe trousers or skirt, white shirt with wing collar fastened with gold brooch (collar studs for boys). Plus sports kit. Doc Martens may be worn as long as stitching is not yellow, makeup must be discreet, skirts not allowed above the knee. Total cost: around pounds 500.

'I'm really glad we have a uniform. I think we look very smart. Girls are a recent addition to the school and it makes us blend in. Because the uniform was so expensive, my skirt has had to last me four years, so it's beginning to look like a tent. I thought the wing collar would be uncomfortable but in fact it's really soft. Some girls roll their skirts up practically round their hips.'

Travis Murray, 16

Davenant Foundation School, Essex (mixed comprehensive). Black trousers or skirt, black blazer, white shirt, red, black and white tie. Sixth formers are allowed to wear dark suits of their choice. Plus sports kit for rugby and basketball. If boys have pierced ears they must wear a plaster over them. Doc Martens are forbidden. Total cost: around pounds 120.

'I don't mind the uniform, it makes the school stand out from the others. Our teachers say we are the school's image when we wear it, but some of the guys still mess around on the buses. I'm looking forward to wearing my own suit. If there was no uniform everybody would be trying to outdo each other in the fashion stakes. I've been told to get my hair cut - I wear it in plaits. I suppose I should because I'm something of a role model for the little boys and some of them have started copying me.'

Clarissa Watkins, 10

Prospect House School, Putney, south-west London (mixed infants, to age 11). Navy cord culottes, white shirts with light blue flowers, or dress in same fabric, navy corduroy bomber jacket, navy jumper with red stripes. Stocked only by Harrods. Total cost: around pounds 150.

'I'm not really a dress person, in fact I haven't got another dress, but I like this one. I wore it to a wedding and it looked fine. The jumper's a bit itchy.' Clarissa's mother Charlotte adds: 'I think it's very sad when little boys have to wear grey shorts and shirts from the age of four - they end up wearing grey all their life. But this is such a nice uniform. I seem to spend a great deal of time sewing the pockets back on to the dress, though.'

(Photographs omitted)