Leading Article: Uniforms, yes: but the issue is standards

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That David Blunkett was on the television yesterday morning, but it was so early - what was he talking about again? Children to salute the Union flag on their way in to school? Homework to be doubled? The Lord's Prayer, God Save the Queen and the new Clause IV to become part of the national curriculum? No, no, it was school uniform: luminous blazers to make it easier for conscientious citizens to detect curfew-breakers who are not doing their homework.

With our liberal leanings, it would be easy to oppose school uniform. Few of us liked it when we were at school. But Mr Blunkett is, we have to admit with some regret, utterly right. Training shoes with flashing lights in the heels present too strong an argument.

It is, essentially, the "flashing trainers" argument which has swung the pendulum back from the liberalism of the Seventies.

The wishiest of washy liberals is now in favour of school uniform because they are opposed to fashion one-up-personship, just as they are opposed to all competitive sports. It is not fair on children from poor families to allow them to be visibly outdone in designer labels or expensive Reeboks. As soon as they are old enough to want Umbro and Nike (usually when they cease to be Infants and become Juniors), put them in uniform.

Mr Blunkett reflects the shift in mood. He was leader of Sheffield council in 1981 when it decided its schools could not make the wearing of uniforms compulsory. But as his sons advanced through the comprehensive education system, the more authoritarian and puritanical side of his personality came to the fore. As a parent, he voted to bring back uniforms in his sons' school in Sheffield. And yesterday he said a Labour government would encourage parents to be balloted on compulsory uniforms in all state primary and secondary schools.

Hillary Clinton has made the same ideological journey in America, where uniforms are rare. Most American schools simply have dress codes - "no knives to be worn outside the pants", that kind of thing - but she told the Democratic Convention last year that she wanted school uniforms back.

There is one other good argument in favour of school uniforms: it is that pupils are more recognisable outside schools, which acts as a disincentive to truancy, and makes it easier for teachers to tend their charges.

For the rest, arguments for and against are either trivial, or bad. A delightfully attractive but not at all compelling reason for having uniform is that it gives pupils something relatively harmless to rebel against. Instead of breaking up phone boxes or cutting up bus seats, they can focus their energies on how to tie the biggest knot with the shortest wide bit, or how they can make their skirts shorter by hitching up the waistband.

Poor arguments are mostly sepia-tinted. Getting rid of school uniforms, the blimpish right argues, symbolised the arrival of permissiveness: casual clothes in school blurred the distinction between teacher and pupil, learning and sloth, order and anarchy. Beyond the marginal effect on pupils in signalling that school is different from the rest of life, none of this stands up to scrutiny. But the Tory press will now co-opt Mr Blunkett for the most archaic forms of dress, in their nostalgic reverie of blazers and ties, gymslips and tunics. And the full Bufton Tufton Memorial Kit probably costs far more than any Blue Bolt, Calvin Klein or Fila. In practice, most schools strike a sensible balance between cost, practicality and smartness. Ties, for example, are not necessary.

The trouble with the wishy-washies is that they tend to go for a pick 'n' mix approach to uniforms. They tend to go for "soft" uniforms, with many of the elements optional, or even just a tightened up dress code. That defeats the point, which is, to state the obvious, uniformity. Whatever is agreed should be narrowly defined and sensibly but firmly enforced.

That is our opinion, it is Gillian Shephard's and now it is David Blunkett's too. But the important point is that no government should dictate these things. It should be up to parents and staff, and in some degree pupils, to decide. Giving pupils a say is a good way of encouraging responsibility; a uniform imposed by consent after debate is much likelier to be respected.

Of course, dress codes and school uniforms, like flags and prayer in the United States, are essentially peripheral matters, used for their symbolism by politicians of all stripes because the real issues that matter in education are much harder to tackle. Pupils wearing uniforms don't make for better teachers, nor do they instantly become cleverer: they just create a better climate for organising learning. So this is just a Monday morning before the election gets properly under way leading article: the serious debate should be about whether Chris Woodhead is correct to claim that 15,000 teachers are not up to scratch. Last week it emerged that his own inspectors had only found 4,500 substandard ones, and he responded by saying his staff were just being too lax in their judgments. Let's not forget that all this fuss about school uniforms, which is after all designed to gratify the Daily Mail and its readers more than The Independent and its leader writers, is merely incidental in the crusade to raise standards.