Back to School: Growing numbers favour uniform - Teachers, parents and suppliers suggest that more schools are adopting standard dress. Emma Daly reports

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The Independent Online
AS 'TRENDY' teaching methods have been banished from the classroom, so have trendy clothes - it seems that uniforms are back with a vengeance.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents, plus increased sales by suppliers of uniforms, suggest that more schools are introducing standard dress, partly because in these days of 'parental choice' they feel that neat and tidy pupils enhance their image to prospective customers.

Liberal voices hold out for the freedom and, they say, the common sense of allowing children to wear what they want, but they seem to be losing ground. Those in favour of uniforms cover the widest possible range: the grandest public schools, the middle-class grammars and inner-city state schools.

Alan Smithies, deputy head at Speke Community Comprehensive School, Liverpool, sees a practical need for uniforms. 'We're in a very deprived area, and if we didn't have uniform there would be a lot of pressure on parents; competition develops over expensive clothes. By adopting a uniform we remove a lot of that pressure and it also allows parents to apply for uniform grants.'

This is echoed by a teacher at a Catholic comprehensive in East Anglia. 'Because of the growth of the trainer culture, you have kids in pounds 100 Reeboks taking the mick out of those wearing Dunlops. Uniform does away with that.'

Harrow, the venerable public school, has a fairly standard daily uniform with its distinctive straw hat, but boys must also keep 'sunday dress' - a black tail coat and striped trousers. 'Our uniform defines the school, but perhaps not its nature,' said Nicholas Bomford, Head Master. '(Harrow) is far more progressive than the outward nature of the uniform might suggest.'

Mr Bomford added that even when children are in standard dress 'there's plenty of scope for non-conformity and development of personality'.

But Geoffrey Fallows, head teacher at the (non-uniform) Camden School for Girls, reckons that much of the uniform culture is concerned solely with social attitudes. 'The first thing is the sheer tradition of it, and people like tradition. The second is that it happened in general terms to be what grammar schools did and secondary moderns didn't, so uniforms are associated in the public mind with schools that have status.'

Mr Smithies agrees that uniforms promote a useful image. 'We are trying to sell our young people as employable, as people of worth, and we find school uniform goes down well with parents, employers and with visitors. Parents are in favour of it; they like to see kids looking smart.'

The problem for many children is not uniform per se, but the hideous forms it can take. Catherine Whitaker, 19, loathed the uniform at her school (a Catholic comprehensive for girls in Wimbledon, London). 'It was really horrible,' she said - 'A-line skirts and lots of acrylic. I campaigned to have it re-designed, and now I see they have. Some girls went to great lengths to alter the shape of their skirts.'

She moved to the private Westminster School for the sixth form, where the boys had a uniform and the girls a dress code. 'There was an unwritten uniform - micro-minis and huge baggy jumpers so it was questionable whether you were actually wearing a skirt,' Ms Whitaker said. 'It was a distraction - but that's what the boys wanted.'

Pat Bagshaw, principal of Countesthorpe College, a state school in Leicestershire, strongly opposes uniforms, particularly for older pupils. 'Fourteen to 19 (the age of her pupils) is a time of transition from childhood to adult life, and one thing we want them to learn is to dress appropriately and learn adult behaviour, much of it based on self-discipline.'

At Countesthorpe, as at Camden, pupils are allowed to wear more or less what they like, although Ms Bagshaw would ban 'dangerous' clothes such as steel- capped boots, or T-shirts with offensive slogans. Mr Fallows discourages pupils from wearing expensive clothes or jewellery because 'schools are grubby places, so people who can get harmlessly grubby are probably sensible'.

Natasha Plowright was 'desperate' to wear a school uniform when she was 11, but spent her entire school life in civvies. 'I thought it would be lovely to get up and wear a skirt and tie, neat little clothes without the hassle of choosing. Maybe I wanted to be part of a crowd,' she said. 'Also it was the fault of Enid Blyton and Mallory Towers: I fancied myself with a hockey stick in a uniform.'

Enid Hennessy, who is a parent-governor at the Walthamstow School for Girls, a state school with a uniform, has no very strong feelings on the issue. Her child has a fairly flexible uniform policy. 'They like it because they can be slightly fashionable, but that's a bit of a pain because then a choice is available.'

Jessie Crawford, aged seven, who attends Pembridge Hall, a private primary school for girls, is glad she has a uniform: 'I like wearing the same clothes as other people.'

Mrs Hennessy says: 'Some parents think it's very important, when choosing a school, whether the kids look nice and tidy. I think a strong uniform is probably good for the image, but I don't think it has much to do with a child's education.'