Education: But mum, we really want to wear uniforms

A wave of conformism is sweeping the country. Just look at the children.
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The Independent Online
Have you noticed how many people there are in uniform these days? In addition to the usual types, such as police, nurses, or firemen, uniforms are mushrooming all over the place. Take shopping, for instance. These days, shop assistants wear uniforms of a sort, usually matching dresses in peculiar prints or unisex same-coloured shirts. Uniformed security guards stalk the aisles of supermarkets and even the men unloading boxes are in overalls with logos and caps with badges.

As for schools, there has been a positive epidemic of uniforms in recent years. Every primary school now has its own distinctive T-shirt or sweatshirt. Even the nurseries are at it. One morning I looked out of the window and saw the village children waiting for the bus to the local comprehensive, their clothes transformed overnight into trousers and tops of scarlet and gold. What's it all about? Are we to follow the example of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and moving towards a single, standardised dress code?

It's an alarming trend for someone like me who has had a lifelong phobia of uniforms. This could be due to having grown up with military relations, or the trauma of entering an English school at the age of 14 after a blissfully un-uniformed childhood and encountering the full horror of saucer hats, gymslips and navy-blue knickers with knotted elastic waists. Years later, when my eldest daughter required school uniform, I was amazed that she seemed so laid-back about it all. None of my children seem to mind a bit. What they do mind is me expounding my views on the undesirability of uniforms in PTA meetings full of parents who think uniforms are essential to a child's well-being. I have even been accused of being an ageing hippie for daring to express the opinion that uniforms are hideous, unnecessary and divisive.

Today, though, I am all too aware that the world has moved on and I am very much left behind. Uniforms are IN. Nearly everyone has one, and those who don't actively want them. Nor does anyone bother to justify them with the old arguments: it used to be said that uniforms saved parents money. Nonsense, I used to counter, they actually cost you more because apart from buying the uniform, you still have to buy the trainers, Levi's and everything else they want because children won't be seen dead in their uniform outside school hours. These days everyone agrees that's true, but they still want uniforms regardless. Nor does anyone put up the old argument that they help to create a climate of equality in schools since you can't distinguish class background or degrees of wealth. Children are incredibly shrewd at sussing out social differences, uniforms or not.

What does seem to be true is that on some very basic level, children are driven towards conformity in dress codes. "Why can't you understand this?" yelled my eldest a few months ago, and proceeded to regale a down- town Boston clothes store with her version of an abused childhood. "My mother," she shrieked, "has no idea about how important clothes are to kids. All my life I wanted to be normal and just have the same kind of clothes as other girls. But what did my mother do? She used to force me to wear the kind of things she wears, clothes she buys in Third World markets." I tried to sidle to the exit but she held on to my arm. "And right now," she finished, "I'm here to make sure she buys exactly what my little brother wants, not what she thinks he should have." Considerably poorer, we left the shop and within hours my son was indistinguishable from every other boy of his age in identical Michael Jordan basketball gear.

Even rebellion is conformist. My 14-year-old and her friends go off to parties in identical teetering high-heeled hooves, with pastel-coloured slips that pass for dresses and identical feather boas. Recently they indulged in navel piercing, which they then hid from their parents for a good two months before the summer forced the secret from them. They had gone en masse to be pierced and all had the same ring inserted. Roll on the Cultural Revolution!

My interpretation of the wave of conformism that is sweeping the country is that it's linked to all the talk about corporate identities. Nobody wears school uniform because they think it looks smart, no parent actually believes that it saves money or helps their child fit in any better. People wear uniform, schools promote it, offices encourage it, shops introduce it to help create a greater sense of identity with the institution. Even politicians are at it - haven't you noticed how ostentatiously Conservative women MPs wear shades of blue before the TV cameras and Labour women wear shades of red? Before long, we'll see the Cabinet in matching T-shirts and people like myself will be forced to wear university blazers or corporate headgear.

It's an identity question, uniform. People are so desperate to belong to something that they're latching on to uniforms. Meanwhile, I shall continue to be a lone voice in the wilderness crying out against the abomination of conformity. And the neatly dressed squads of corporate whatevers, including my entire family, will elbow me aside into the dust.

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