Uniforms: smart or silly?

Some schools insist that a uniform attracts parents and reinforces pupils' sense of pride and belonging. Others say the rules are a distraction. Emma Haughton reports
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The Independent Online
"Girls' skirts should be between knee and mid-calf in length; girls' trousers should be navy blue, full length to ankle and tailored. Boys' trousers should be conventional and dark grey. Boys and girls should wear low-heeled shoes - black, dark brown or navy. Trainers, boots, canvas shoes, and high-ankled, heavy shoes are unacceptable."

The uniform regulations at Woodroffe Comprehensive, Lyme Regis, are typical of British schools, and most parents accept them. But this grant maintained Dorset school aroused local controversy when its head decided to ensure that pupils adhered to the letter of the uniform law by excluding those who didn't.

Woodroffe, which has more than 800 pupils, is at the sharp end of a trend towards stricter uniform codes. Even in primary schools, where attitudes to uniform have always tended to be more relaxed, pressure from teachers, governors and parents sees many four- and five-year-olds start their school life decked out in stiff white shirts and ties.

According to a survey by the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations (NCPTA), 98 per cent of British parents now believe that school uniforms are indispensable. The list of advantages trips off the tongue: uniforms create identity and a sense of community; they promote discipline and the "orderly atmosphere" beloved of John Major; they bypass the worst excesses of popular fashion and minimise the visible signs of parental income; we are all desperate for our children to look smart.

"It's to do with the expectations of the community and having a corporate image that gives youngsters a sense of belonging," says Kerrigan Redman, head of Woodroffe. "Wearing a uniform affects their attitude and the way they behave. If the school looks good, it feels good."

But not all Woodroffe parents agree. Susan Board, whose 13-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was excluded for wearing baggy trousers and a ribbed rather than the standard uniform jumper, believes the school's crackdown is excessive.

"I send my daughter to school to get an education and this obsession is disturbing that," says Mrs Board. "If she is clean and tidy, that should be good enough."

Reinforced by the recent government attack on scruffy teachers, school uniforms have come to represent something far more than a clean-cut image, believes Ted Wragg, professor of Education at Exeter University.

"It's one of those areas which is more emotional than rational. People believe that if you have a uniform, the kids will behave themselves, or results will go up. Uniform suggests that you're in control, it's a psychological device for suggesting the place is orderly. But, of course, it's almost impossible to prove."

Those convinced of the effectiveness of uniform beyond any burden of proof will be encouraged by its endorsement by President Clinton, following the deaths of two US pupils killed for coveted items of their non-uniform clothing. Those who need more convincing point to European neighbours such as France and Germany, who regard our predilection for cloning our children as nothing short of bizarre.

Some uniforms, of course, seem more bizarre than others. Boys at Christ's Hospital school in Horsham, West Sussex, still don the traditional long yellow stockings, knee breeches and maxi-length navy coats that were worn in Tudor times, but the headteacher, Dr Peter Southern, maintains that his pupils have a clear affection for it.

"By and large they appreciate its distinctive nature. One pupil said that when he put it on, it reminded him he had ancestors. It gives a feeling of being part of an institution with a history."

The vast majority of Christ's Hospital's 800 pupils have their education funded by the school, but, Dr Southern admits: "It's unfortunate that the world looks at us and gets the impression that we're a toffee-nosed bunch ... What we're wearing is actually the antithesis of the morning coat. We're not a rich man's school, but that is the perception the uniform can give."

At least Christ's Hospital provides its esoteric garb to its pupils free of charge. According to recent estimates from Family Circle magazine, the average cost of kitting out a child for the new school year is now pounds 552. More than half of parents say it is a struggle to find the money.

But those opposed to uniforms believe cost is not the only drawback. At Islington Green school in London, uniform is seen as a hindrance to self-expression, and a distraction from pupils' work.

"The policy of our school is to foster the individuality of each person ... a school uniform would not allow that to happen," says the headteacher, Tony Garwood, whose pupils mostly attend school in jeans and a T-shirt. "We don't find fashion much of a problem. We expect them to wear something appropriate. They know it's not a licence to come in scantily dressed or wearing six-storey platforms."

He believes that formal uniforms drag teachers into enforcing lots of petty rules. "We should be talking to pupils about their work, not the colour of their blouse or whether they are wearing a tie. We certainly don't want to send children home when they should be in lessons."

Nor is discipline an issue, he insists. "There is something of a simple formula in people's minds which goes: uniform equals discipline equals standards. But we are the only non-uniform school in Islington, and we are oversubscribed. A number of parents say they have chosen the school because of our policy on dress."

Yet just three miles away, George Orwell school in Islington is adopting a uniform as part of a package of measures to improve standards and attract more pupils. When David Owen took over as headteacher in September 1995, his overpowering impression was that the pupils made little distinction between life outside the school and life inside. "It was a bit like Butlins," he recalls. "There were children wearing beachwear and tops with bare midriffs. You couldn't distinguish between pupils and casual visitors."

After consulting teachers, support staff, parents and pupils, the school settled on a basic black and white dress code, with a rugby ball logo designed by the pupils. With 30 per cent of the 530 pupils registered as refugees, and some 38 languages spoken in the school, Mr Owen believes the uniform will bring cohesiveness and a sense of pride. He also hopes it will make George Orwell more attractive to local parents.

"With the school under-subscribed by nearly 400 places, uniform is a survival issue," he admits. "A lot of parents just weren't coming to see the school because it didn't have a uniform, and lots of primary school heads put uniform high on the list when recommending schools. We're certain we're now attracting more interest ... It's made a huge difference to the perception of the school in the local neighbourhood"n

Any colour you like ... as long as it's blue

When Jean Jakobson took over as head of the Holy Trinity church primary school in Camden, north London, three years ago, she decided that introducing a uniform would be a good way to turn over a new leaf. Keen to involve parents, she sent out a questionnaire canvassing their opinion. The replies gave her proposal a unanimous thumbs-up.

Parental involvement didn't stop there. A ballot on the uniform colours resulted in a royal blue sweatshirt printed with the school logo, teamed with matching blue jogging pants, and a red T-shirt or white polo-shirt. The parents of all 200 pupils signed a contract agreeing to abide by the new uniform rules.

"There have been no objections," says Ms Jakobson. "They like it because they don't have the arguments with the children about what they are going to wear."

She also believes that the school's largely working-class catchment makes the uniform particularly popular.

"Many parents think it gives the school a bit of status. Some have rather old-fashioned views about its instilling discipline. While I'd say it does improve the ethos, I'm not convinced it has much impact on discipline."

What the uniform does do, she believes, is to send a positive message to the children and the outside world. "It's easy to recognise, if we go out somewhere like the British Museum. It's a good way of saying to the children and the public that we're proud of our school, that we're one body working to the same ends."

Parents can buy the whole kit for pounds 20 through the school shop. But mindful of the high proportion of low-income children attending the school, Ms Jakobson established a charitable fund to help the 10 per cent who still find that beyond their means.

She took pains to ensure that, as well as being affordable, Holy Trinity's uniform is practical, washable and, above all, easy to wear. "We took the kids to the National Theatre recently, and there were girls there from an independent school in straw boaters," she says. "I'm sorry to say that they all looked rather uncomfortable"n

Emma Haughton