Beckett's didn't fit; Blunkett hated his; Blair's was old fashioned. So why is Labour so keen on school uniform?

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The Independent Online
David Blunkett could not stand his cap, Margaret Beckett did not really care for the colours, and Clare Short did not go a bundle on her boater.

For John Prescott, the deputy leader, life at the Ellesmere Port secondary modern meant smart uniformity, while in the rather more refined surroundings of Fettes College, Edinburgh, where his boss, Tony Blair, was educated, there was never been any question that uniforms were de rigueur.

But the Labour frontbenchers all agree that, whatever their own experience, uniforms are just the thing for today's children. The Shadow Cabinet is keen to replace designer labels in the classroom with school badges. Uniforms have been in decline since the Sixties, and the classroom, they say, is in danger of becoming a fashion parade.

Mr Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, announced yesterday that the party was considering increasing the emphasis on uniform in state schools as part of its drive for greater parental power in education.

No sooner had he outlined his vision for colour-coordinated classrooms, than a Conservative MP accused him of "gross hypocrisy". Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley and a member of the Commons education and employment committee, pointed out that in 1981 Mr Blunkett, as leader of Sheffield City Council, backed a motion preventing schools insisting on uniforms for pupils.

"He did one thing while in the safe socialist citadel in Sheffield and says quite another in his effort to target middle-class votes at the general election," Mr Riddick said.

Mr Blunkett last night admitted that he had indeed voted against compulsory uniforms 16 years ago. "At the time people thought it was the right decision in view of the fact that kids had been sent home for wearing the wrong coloured socks," he said. "Sixteen years on, we're talking about a code of dress in a different era with designer clothes which have transformed the expense for parents."

Mr Blunkett's own uniform "involved khaki". "My problem was that the school uniform was pretty scroggy," he said. "This is why I'm advocating some kind of code of dress which parents decide on but young people have a part in. They should decide on the colour and match so it isn't an embarrassment to wear, but rather can be worn with a sense of pride."

Along with his blazer, Mr Blunkett wore a cap at Sheffield School for the Blind. "I never liked wearing the cap," he said. "I wouldn't wish to inflict a cap on youngsters."

Recently, he voted in favour of uniform at the school his 14-year-old son, Andrew, attends. His son voted against uniform but, now that it has been introduced, has "learnt to live with it".

From a parent's point of view, Mr Blunkett added, uniform is economical. "It's taken the competitiveness out of the designer clothes which they were all in before. They want the actual brand-name stuff, so they get the label on it ... It's really a rip-off. Obviously they are still into it for weekend and evening wear, but that doesn't put the same strain on."

Margaret Beckett, Labour's trade and industry spokeswoman, recalled her uniform at Notre Dame high school in Norwich with little relish. "It was uncomfortable and expensive," she said. "Like most kids, I didn't care for it very much. Uniforms always feel mis-shapen, don't they?"

But it need not be like that, Mrs Beckett felt sure. "I'm sure you can get good and modern school uniform that isn't any of those things."

Clare Short, spokeswoman on overseas development, wore a navy-blue school blazer with the school's motto, "The pen is mightier than the sword", and a pinafore dress. The image of St Paul's Grammar School for Girls, in Birmingham, lives on. "I see my former self walking about the town," Ms Short said.

Like her Shadow Cabinet colleagues, Ms Short expressed disbelief at the quirky rules which governed her school wardrobe. "At 16 you were so grown- up you couldn't fit your body into a pinafore. You could wear a skirt. In fact, you had to wear a skirt, and then you could wear nylons."

She is in favour of a reintroduction of uniforms, not least for the children's sake, saying: "There is so much pressure to grow up and the sexualisation of youngsters is so great that if schools are able to be a bit of a haven from that, that's a good thing."

Leading article, page 13

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