Life is short, and childhood passes fleetingly in the twinkling of an eye. We all know this, don’t we? Then tell me this. Why have I spent more time than I can count teaching my tiny daughters to tie a Windsor knot?
I have just about managed to get the GothicDaughter to master this fiddly process at the age of eight. And now I am back on the merry-go-round again with the 5 year old. I actually had to Google it the first time I had to tie my daughter’s tie because – and brace yourself for the shock of this – I had got to 40 years old without having to wear a tie. You know, what with me being a woman and never having been quite gamine enough to pull off the Annie Hall look. And I was very bad at it, although not quite as bad at it as a clumsy and easily distracted five year old.
What has happened some time in the last 30 years to persuade us (or at least a lot of school governors) that a five year old girl can only look ‘smart’ in what is effectively a drag outfit? Like a very dull fancy dress party where the invite reads: come as your favourite junior bank clerk. Or for the more relaxed ones with a polo shirt policy, come as a Kwik-fit fitter. It’s bizarre if you think about it.
When I was a kid, we didn’t have to wear uniform in primary school at all and the secondary uniform was extremely loose too. As long as we were dressed, more or less, and our make up didn’t make us look like a startled budgie, then no one really commented on what we were wearing. Ah, how little we knew back then. We just weren’t aware that we were teetering on the brink of anarchy without a set of complicated rules about the length of skirts and the width of our lapels to keep us from total chaos.
In sixth form, the only rule was no denim – a rule we expended a great deal of time and energy howling in protest about. It was a breach of our human rights not to dress like Shaking Stevens. It was, basically, like Stalinist Russia, you know?
During the course of the average school day, I keep having to break off from banging on about Topic Sentences every ten minutes or so to bark ‘tuck your shirt in!’ and ‘five stripes on the tie please young man!’ Now on the upside this does make me feel like a genuine bona fide teacher. But on the downside… well sometimes all this emphasis on the length of skirts and the colours of belts and the maximum number of bracelets and which bits of cartilage is it OK to pierce and which not – well it does all seem a tiny bit trivial.
I do understand, though, that it’s all a bit of a ritual. An age-old formation dance where the authority figures set the boundaries and the students give them a bit of a tentative push, to see what gives. I find it quite comforting to imagine that this is a clever piece of misdirection. Persuade the kids that they need to direct their attention towards the crucial issue of whether they can wear stripey socks, to distract them from the fact that they are forced to stand on a hockey field for two hours a week in the freezing cold, or even the fact that they have to come to school at all. If all the teenagers in the country suddenly decided to ACTUALLY rebel rather than fretting about nose-piercings, we would all be in a great deal of trouble.
There are, I know, a number of positive arguments wheeled out in favour of a uniform but I am pretty unconvinced by them. The uniform is a great leveller, and makes everyone look the same? Anyone who has ever been in a classroom knows this is a big fat lie. Walk into any classroom and within 15 seconds you can tell the kids from comfortable homes, and those from lower income families, just like you can tell the cool kids from the normal ones. In fact the idea that a strict uniform policy helps reduce bullying and improves things for poorer children is quite a nasty little lie.
If you enforce a strict policy, then this makes it harder for poorer children to look smart, particularly if you restrict supply to specialist shops. In extreme circumstances, it might stop a family from accessing a particular school. This isn’t just anecdotal. A report by the charity Family Action this week laid out the problems faced by many families trying to equip their child for school, especially now clothing grants have been abolished. The more restrictive the policy, the more likely it is the poorer child will stand out: in clothes too big or too small, a bit grubby or torn because they only have one skirt. Or the sixth form girl with only one suit. All in all a pretty miserable way to spend your adolescence. Make the policy less restrictive and the cost, and therefore the problem, reduces.
And the one about dressing ‘professionally’ making you work hard, concentrate more. Really? So in all of continental Europe, all of North America, the lack of a polyester blazer is what’s really holding all those children back from achieving academic success. And as for looking ‘professional’ – which professions really wear uniforms these days? Most workplaces don’t have a strict dress code any more. If you make the sixth formers wear cheap dark suits, then they don’t look like smart professionals; they look like they are on their way to a very low key funeral.
And anyway, why should schools be about institutionalising children for corporate life? I know I am going to sound like the pinko Guardianista I am, but surely they should be about learning. A few pairs of ripped jeans don’t seem to hold back the undergraduates.
And, you know, it’s kind of nice to look a little different, a little individual. A pupil of mine once saw me on my way to an interview dressed in a trouser suit and she didn’t hold back: ‘Hi Miss oh my GOD WHAT ARE YOU WEARING?!?!?!’ It was a fair point. I didn’t look like myself. I looked, and felt, uncomfortable.
So roll on non-uniform day, when the children get to look like themselves. Till then, tuck your shirt in. Yes, you. All the way round!
Ah, that’s better.