Those loud purple blazers have their place

School uniforms encourage egalitarianism - the fashion victims don't stand out as nerds

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My 11-year-old daughter Eleanor starts at secondary school in Hereford next month, and last week we bought her uniform. She has to wear a tie, a pleasure denied her at primary school, as well as a navy blazer, and a skirt falling to below the knee. She looks a little like a trainee hotel receptionist, which at least came in handy at the weekend when she and her friend Marianna played hotel receptionists.

My 11-year-old daughter Eleanor starts at secondary school in Hereford next month, and last week we bought her uniform. She has to wear a tie, a pleasure denied her at primary school, as well as a navy blazer, and a skirt falling to below the knee. She looks a little like a trainee hotel receptionist, which at least came in handy at the weekend when she and her friend Marianna played hotel receptionists.

At first, Eleanor was aghast by the length of the skirt, as aghast as if I had ripped the McFly poster from her bedroom wall and replaced it with one of Showaddywaddy. Eleven-year-old girls have a certain credibility to maintain, and below-the-knee skirts do that credibility no favours.

But she has now decided that she quite likes the look, although she might reassess that verdict when she compares notes with her London cousins, the fount of all things fashionable, who attend Putney High, an all-girls school, and have only to ensure that their skirts are hitched no higher than 10cms above the knee.

On the other hand, the girls of Putney High have to wear loud purple blazers, not that they are encouraged to wear them outside school boundaries. A loud purple blazer is, like, so uncool. More significantly, it is to certain other kids what a red rag is to a bull. To some kids, a loud purple blazer says, loudly: "I'm not only rather nerdy, I'm also posh, rich, and very probably have a mobile phone somewhere about my person, which, if your threats are unpleasant enough, is all yours."

There are some schools in London, and doubtless other cities, which have started actively to discourage pupils from wearing uniforms outside the gates. I am told that the all-boys University College School in Hampstead, north London, has even issued an edict to that effect. Like Putney High, UCS has a distinctive blazer, a rather jolly, striped affair. But too many boys in striped blazers were being mugged, so the school insisted that, on their way to and from school, boys try to blend in as much as possible with the outside world. There was a time, of course, when UCS decreed exactly the opposite. That was probably why striped blazers and Putney High's purple blazers were chosen in the first place, so that everybody would know which school these fine young citizens represented.

But times have changed. Or have they? I can still remember only too clearly the somersaults of fear that turned in my stomach as I walked, wearing my King George V Grammar School for Boys tie, towards a gang of boys wearing the tie of the local secondary modern, Meols Cop. Not that I had a mobile phone to pinch in Southport in 1975, but I did have a nose to punch. Unless one was with a group of mates, the safest option was to remove tie and blazer, and saunter with one's Adidas bag slung as insouciantly as possible over one's shoulder. But if the approaching gang was tieless too, there was no telling which school its members went to.

I think it was The Outlaw Josey Wales in which Clint Eastwood, playing a Confederate soldier on the run, spotted some men on horseback wearing uniforms of Confederate grey, and ran towards them only to see them slowly brushing the grey dust from their tunics to reveal uniforms of Union blue.

The reason that scene resonated so powerfully with me was that it reminded me of the time I said "alright" to a bunch of Meols Cop lads, thinking they were from KGV. At least Josey Wales got to fight back.

Still, stories of inter-school duffings- up are like the Four Yorkshiremen sketch; there's always someone with a better one. Or in my friend Paul's case, one with an added religious dimension. He went to St Columb's College in 1970s' Derry, which identified him, notably to the boys of Foyle High, as a Catholic. The walk home was a daily exercise in self-preservation.

So the notion that school uniform-related attacks are something new is entirely misplaced. Today's mobile phone is yesterday's pair of football boots, or hockey stick. What is new, however, is the common-sense approach being taken by schools such as UCS. In the 1950s, my mother-in-law Anne made her way to grammar school in Barnsley between the devil and the deep blue sea. If she wore her grey beret, she risked having it pulled off by other kids; if she didn't, and was spotted by a prefect or a member of staff, she risked detention.

All of which raises the question: why have uniforms at all? Anne grew up to become head teacher of a primary school in Sheffield which had no uniforms, but in the early 1980s she held a consultation with parents, who unanimously voted in favour of introducing uniforms, only for the Labour-led local authority to rule that they were elitist. So the parents' wishes were denied, even though their motivation was simple and pure: in uniform, it would be less obvious which were the poorer kids.

At Eleanor's new school, as at places such as UCS and Putney High, this argument is less valid. But still, a school uniform encourages a valuable egalitarianism: the fashion victims, for instance, do not stand out as such nerds. Moreover, I'm rather pleased now to have an old school tie. And the spots of dried blood give it character.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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