The school cap is back - but not as Just William knew it

Worry over the effects of sun on young skins has revived an institution , reports Ros Wynne-Jones
Click to follow
It was a curious spectacle fora Home Counties school playground. As the bell rang for playtime, an army of pint-sized Lawrence of Arabia clones charged into the schoolyard adjusting their legionnaire's caps against the brilliant sunshine.

The school cap, once as synonymous with schoolboys as short trousers, has been reinvented. Gone is the little woollen cap that Just William would pull over his eyes to avoid the stern gaze of mother. In its place, a cap with flaps to protect young, fair skin against Britain's increasingly hot summers is becoming common.

"It's to protect us against the sun," said eight-year-old Anthony Griffiths. "The flap at the back protects your neck and the front protects your eyes. It's to stop cancer getting you."

The caps issued to pupils at Oaklands junior school in Crowthorne, Berkshire, are effectively baseball caps with flaps. Fashion-conscious young things have already customised them by tucking the flaps in to make a baseball cap - which, for ultimate playground hip, is then worn back to front.

David Beazer, 11, an advocate of the back-to-front view of fashion, says it's "cool" to be able to wear baseball hats to school. "You have to tuck the flaps in, though, otherwise you look as if you've got blue hair."

"Or girls' hair," puts in another boy, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from pig-tailed classmates. "You don't want people thinking you're a girl."

Unlike the gender-specificcaps for boys and berets or boaters for girls, the legionnaire's caps are unisex. Girls have welcomed them as warmly as the boys. "I really want to get one," said Camille Hoffman, 10. "It gets very hot in our playground in the summer, but it's definitely a fashion thing too."

At Oaklands, the idea came from the headteacher and a GP, Dr Carol Oakley. "We were worried that there were kids out in the midday sun without protection," said Dr Oakley. "Children are more easily educated and influenced, so we also wanted to get them to think about the sun while they were young."

APC Schoolwear, which supplies the school, says it now includes legionnaire's caps in its catalogue and they have been taken up by at least 50 schools across the country.

"We started supplying baseball caps a couple of years ago and then legionnaire's caps last year," says Carol Hughes, sales manager. "There is a serious concern about skin cancer, but it's also part of the Americanisation of school uniform - it started with sweatshirts but now it's rollnecks and caps. The independent schools have kept the traditional caps, but in most state schools there hasn't been a school cap for at least 15 years.

"Primary schools are now going for a more casual, informal look which is a nice option for parents because the clothes are easier to wash, but the clothes also keep the identity of the school through the logo."

The heat of last summer saw many schools asking for sunhats and APC now supplies legionnaire's caps throughout theSouth-west and in Wales, Birmingham, Yorkshire and Norfolk.

Where once it was a punishable offence not to be wearing a cap on school premises, health-conscious Nineties children wear their caps with pride. When pupils at Oaklands debated school uniform, most said they were in favour and suggested that caps be allowed as an optional extra.

But is this trend to casual schoolwear undermining the fabric of society? What will happen to discipline if children start appearing in mirror shades and high-fiving their way US-style through school corridors istening to hip-hop? Isn't the point of school uniform that the kids hate it? Sue Baughan, headteacher at Oaklands, believes her charges look just as smart in regulation sweatshirts as in navy-blue knitted jumpers. The legionnaire's caps, meanwhile, are at least all a uniform colour now, unlike last summer when it was so hot the children were allowed bring their own hats in.

"I am a believer in uniform as a leveller," Ms Baughan says. "You only have to see the children at school discos to know what a nightmare it would be without it. If you look at one of our school assemblies, you couldn't say the children don't look smart, even if they are more casual nowadays. I know some schools wouldn't allow it, but the parents here were in favour because the sweatshirts are easier to wash and the hats provide protection against skin cancer."

David Evans, headteacher of High Cross primary school in Newport, South Wales, feels his pupils look a lot tidier with hats and sweatshirts bearing the school logo. "It's a corporate image," he says. "When we go on educational trips the children look like a disciplined body of six-year-olds. We have large open grounds here and we have been very concerned about children's skin even during the 15-minute break, but especially at times like sports day. In Australia, schools believe it is necessary and now Britain's summers are hotter we have to take it seriously as well."

Brent Knoll primary near Highbridge, Somerset, has already sold out of its first order of legionnaire's caps. Like High Cross and Oaklands, it is the first summer it has considered such an addition to school uniform. Jean Fice, the school secretary, explains: "Our motto here is, 'The sun has got his hat on' and so should our pupils."