Jane Pearce, the Watford schoolwear adviser for John Lewis, is conducting her 22nd parents' evening of the season, this time at Longdean School in Hemel Hempstead. Casting an expert eye over a small boy, she gauges his size without needing to measure, and hands him a blazer to try on - pinching the side seams to check for room, raising the arms to see if the sleeves fit.
It's a scene that was repeated hundreds of times over the summer as parents stocked up for the autumn. Jane can take 100 orders in an evening. With costs rising from around £130 for state-school uniform (plus PE kit) to £200-£300 for a private school, our national predilection for uniform is expensive - and shows no sign of abating.
In fact, although a few years ago it looked as though uniforms were on the way out, now the trend is definitely the other way. Jane and her colleagues around the country advise schools on how to makeover or introduce a uniform, and every single one of them reports the same thing - schools are smartening up. With very few exceptions, schools that don't have a uniform want one; schools with sloppy uniform want to be smarter; and those who are smart already are considering whether that extra bit of piping on a blazer, or a new logo will help to set them apart from the competition.
Which, of course, is often what it's all about. So, far from abandoning that piece of neckwear that seems a strange garment for the 21st century - the tie - schools are actually inventing excuses to have several different sorts of tie (for different houses, or for prefects). They are making girls wear them, too. And the school badge, proudly sported on the blazer, is making a comeback, ousting the logo on the sweatshirt.
In Hemel Hempstead five out of the seven schools now insist on a blazer. And while the girls might breathe a sigh of relief that the floppy beret is a thing of the past, there are still caps and boaters aplenty - and even felt hats at two schools.
Whether smartening up does improve morale and performance is a matter of debate. There's certainly no conclusive academic proof, here or in the USA, where arguments over dress codes and uniform have raged since Bill Clinton said, in his 1996 State of the Union address, that he supported uniforms, "if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets".
Lack of proof hasn't stopped the education hierarchy coming out in favour. The Education Secretary Charles Clarke says that traditional uniforms give schools a sense of identity, and "clearly have a marked effect on improving behaviour and standards"; and the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, has gone further, claiming that "a ragtag roll-call is just not good enough if pupils are to come to school to learn".
The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) did its own survey, and it backed the heads who say that uniform goes down well with parents - 83 per cent of parents favoured it. Some said that it equalised standards of dress, limiting peer pressure to have the latest designer gear and, consequently, reducing bullying.
The accompanying press release forgot to mention that those who actually had to wear the uniform didn't agree. A majority of pupils in the same survey opposed it.
At the same time, the DfES produced a list of schools to support its case that uniform improves standards, and anecdotal evidence to that effect is certainly not thin on the ground.
Gary Lewis, head of Kings Langley, a comprehensive school in Hemel Hempstead, is a great believer in the power of uniform. Last year, his school had only 136 applications for 180 places. "When I arrived, what was immediately apparent was that the children were suffering from a lack of demarcation - they didn't know where the boundaries were - and the confidence of staff and pupils was shot to pieces," he says.
He put in place a raft of changes to improve the school, including scrapping the "odds and sods" of sweatshirts that passed for a uniform. Wanting a sense of identity for the school, he researched a new logo that fitted in with local history, and brought in blazers and burgundy, black and silver ties. He even introduced a different uniform for the caretakers. "The way I sold it to the kids was that I am not obsessed with blazers, but I am obsessed with standards," he says.
School applications went up to 398 this year, and SATs have improved. Gary Lewis says that, of all the changes he made, smartening up the uniform was the most significant. But it doesn't always work. One girls school in the south of England gave up on boaters after two pupils were attacked on a bus. Standing out doesn't alwaysdo, and when the older children travel on public transport they can be vulnerable. This is particularly so if they are teenage girls adept at subverting uniform to give it that special "soft porn" look - short skirts and ties, tight blouses and over-the-knee socks. One headmistress banned ties and blouses for girls for that reason: "They looked like tarts," she says.
Some schools, however, have different ideas. This term, students at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, Devon, will be turning up dressed "appropriately for work", but not in uniform - the governors abolished it early in the summer. The principal, Stephen Jones, is delighted. "It has lightened up the whole place, the kids look delightful," he says. The change was introduced because King Edward VI is a new specialist arts college, and a uniform, it was felt, would not be consistent with the creative and dynamic values the school should be espousing. Parents were not consulted, but students voted three to one in favour. Gary Lewis admits that if he was running a specialist arts school, he might be inclined to do the same. "It's all in the context, and you have to know what identity you want for a school," he says.
One incident from the time of the makeover sticks in his mind. As the new blazers arrived, he was reprimanding a Year 9 student who had been causing trouble. She tried one on and he was taken aback by her reaction. "She started preening herself. Her words to me were, 'Sir, I didn't think we were good enough to wear blazers'".
At Kings Langley, that's not something they can say any more.
'IT'S BETTER THAN BUYING DESIGNER GEAR'
Longdean Community School has trodden a circular path as far as uniform is concerned - from blazers to sweatshirts, and back to blazers. Twelve years ago, pupils wore navy blue blazers - or were supposed to. They didn't wear them properly, and the look was scruffy, says deputy head Janice Herrington. When the national trend turned casual, Longdean followed suit - with sweatshirts that looked "faded". Another head insisted on a "proper" uniform - black blazer, badge, "polishable" shoes, and blue-and-silver tie. Now, says teacher Lynn Mason, "they look amazing - immaculate".
Teachers' verdict: it has given the school a sense of identity.
Parents' verdict: almost unanimously in favour, apart from one who thought it didn't flatter the children. The rest liked the smart look, and didn't baulk at the cost. "If we didn't have a uniform, we'd have to buy them designer clothes instead," said one.
Pupils' verdict: Sixth-formers will be wearing "workplace clothing" from next term, which they like. The younger ones would rather not have a uniform, but if they have to, they like the smart look and the "extra pockets" in the blazers. One 11-year-old gave the uniform the ultimate accolade: "It's cool!"Reuse content