Education: Why uniforms are back in vogue: As competitive state schools return to blazers and ties to gain a smarter image, old passions are being rekindled. Diana Hinds reports

Click to follow
Wearing uniforms to school has long been a peculiarly British idea. It is anathema to the French and Germans, whose thriving state sector has never seen the need for compulsory ties, caps and blazers. But the idea is gaining renewed popularity in state schools, helped along by image-conscious parents, as well as by the enthusiastic prods of Messrs Major and Patten.

The school uniform in this country has its roots in the public school tradition, which has no equivalent in France or Germany. Rightly or wrongly, state schools have tended to look to the independent sector for models, and the notion of wearing a uniform has become associated with many people's idea of a good education.

Looking back to my own independent schooling, it seems hard to believe that what I wore as a 14-year- old - thin navy skirt (made in a needlework lesson), shapeless navy jersey (my sister's cast-off) and long fawn socks, permanently around my ankles - could have inspired much confidence or admiration in anyone. But uniform arouses strong passions. Its advocates argue that it helps to create an identity for a school and fosters a sense of pride among its pupils, as well as eradicating obvious differences between the more and the less affluent. John Major believes that a uniform contributes to good discipline and an 'orderly atmosphere' in school, while his Secretary of State for Education, John Patten, adds that it makes it easier to spot truants.

But opponents counter that the uniform is expensive, unnecessary and sometimes uncomfortable. It simply represents another set of rules, they say, which teachers are obliged to enforce.

At one end of the spectrum is Christ's Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex, a public school founded by Edward VI for those in need, proud that its pupils still wear what they did in the Tudor age: long yellow stockings, knee breeches and floor- length navy coats - all paid for by the school. 'Wearing the uniform is a sign that you are accepting a social contract - which makes it easier for discipline to be enforced,' says Richard Poulton, the headteacher. 'I wouldn't go so far as to say the pupils love the uniform, but they are totally loyal to it, and to the tradition that lies behind it.'

At the other end is a school such as Haverstock School, a comprehensive in north London, where pupils wear baggy T-shirts, jogging bottoms and trainers. 'There is a mistaken idea that uniformity is the equivalent of control,' says Janet Wallace, the headteacher. 'Young people do have to learn discipline and self-control, but I don't think dressing alike is a means of doing that. I've worked in schools that had a uniform, where the first thing a teacher said to a pupil would often be, 'Do your tie up.' I'd rather be tackling them on other issues.'

The 12 members of the Haverstock school council, however, were evenly split last week on whether a uniform would be a good idea.

'It takes away from your individuality - you can't tell one person from the next,' said Joel, 16.

'But the trouble is, if you haven't got the right designer labels on your clothes, certain people pick on you,' added Sarah, 16.

'I'd like a uniform because it would be good to represent the school so people could see where you went,' said David, 11. 'Then they could think of going there too.'

The increased need for schools to market themselves to attract pupils is clearly a major factor in the resurgence of the school uniform, and many grant-maintained schools have been quick to introduce it as a way of trying to establish difference. Kinch & Lack, the country's largest independent retailer of school uniforms, reports a 20 per cent increase in demand from the state sector in the past couple of years. Many secondary schools are now opting for the traditional blazer, school badge and tie, with blue, black or grey jersey, and grey trousers or skirt.

Kinch & Lack can supply a set for about pounds 50 - less than half the cost of an independent school uniform, because of the cheaper materials used. Independent school pupils wear wool flannel blazers, but state schools settle for polyester viscose. Sweatshirts, printed with a school crest and costing pounds 10 to pounds 15, are becoming popular in primary schools, although Kinch & Lack admits that these are less hard- wearing than jerseys and look scruffy more quickly.

Frances Booker, headteacher of St Clare's Primary School, a voluntary-aided Roman Catholic school in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, does not believe that schools need uniform to promote good discipline. But she says the neat brown uniforms of St Clare's - including brown coats, hats for the girls and caps for the infant boys ('not for the older boys, as they get teased on the way home') - are a big attraction for prospective parents. 'Parents are quite crafty these days when choosing a school - they'll even sit outside the gates and watch the children as they leave; some said to me recently how organised and smart they looked in their uniform.'

Others feel that primary school children are too young for such treatment. Walter Ulrich, a spokesman for the National Association of Governors and Managers, said: 'Uniform is entirely a matter for individual governing bodies . . . But my personal view is that there is an element of regimentation about it, which may be acceptable in a secondary context but is unsuitable for younger children.'

In an attempt to strike a happy balance, Colmore Junior School, in King's Heath, Birmingham, has introduced school colours and encourages its pupils to wear blue, black or grey bottoms (trousers, skirts, leggings, etc) and blue sweatshirts with a gold emblem. Blue and gold baseball caps are 'an extra fun item', says the headteacher, Trish Macnamara, provided that they are worn the right way round and never in class. 'Schools have been getting a bad press recently, particularly city schools, and we hoped this would help to give our school an identity, and a positive image in the area,' she says.

The introduction of uniform - or 'school dress' - at Sandon High School, in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, has helped the school to double its intake in the past five years, according to Chris Rutter, the deputy head. The uniform was phased in over six years; an initial choice of three colours was gradually reduced to one, and trainers were finally banned a year ago. But with hindsight, he says, it might have been easier to be stricter from the start. 'It seems as though we created more problems for ourselves this way: each year there's someone who steps over the line and says they have to grow out of something in the old colour first. But many pupils now say they value the uniform. Some don't comply, but they are the ones who tend not to comply with anything.'

(Photographs omitted)