Tuesday, 2 June 2009

School Uniform in 21st Century Britain

This posting is really only going to seem relevant to parents of school-aged children, but I think it also says something about how British society sees itself and, as I have commented on before, how wedded to the past it is. As I have written before, a woman and her 7-year old son live in my house. The boy goes to a local Church of England school which seems to be caught somewhere between the obsession with being sued that is common in the 2000s and attitudes that were going out of fashion in the 1950s. It assumes all families consist of a mother, father and three children and that the mother does not work and is in a position to bake cakes and provide voluntary assistance throughout the year. As it was, many of the nouveau riche, formerly lower middle class parents who tend to send their children to the school (faith schools always draw on a narrow social as well as religious, and often ethnic, basis) are now having to send the mother to work to deal with the recession, especially as so many of the fathers are self-employed and small/medium enterprises (SMEs) are suffering.

Anyway, a declaration has gone out that now the childen must wear Summer uniform. For the girls this is a silly blue-white checked dress of the kind you would have found in small branches of Tescos in 1973 (when Tescos was a down-market general stores rather than the mega-supermarket chain of today). The boys must wear shorts. Again, in my experience shorts went out in the early 1930s. They are humiliating for the children who have to wear them, and given how active boys are, just increase leg gashes and bruises that look terrible. Light summer trousers would be fine. The boy in our house is already embarrassed as other boys say they can see his underpants through the shorts. I also think the clear gender segregation is bad. What would happen if as in the movie 'Ma Vie En Rose' (1997) a young boy decided he wanted to wear a dress? What if one of the girls (or rather her mother) felt it was best for her daughter to match the current fashion among female university students around here, to wear shorts? People have been struggling to break down gender segregation and then a school seeks it to be very visible on the basis of how things were done fifty years ago.

In the late 1970s there was a move to less gender-specific clothing with sweatshirts or plain shirts and trousers. Where I grew up which had a large Muslim population, this overcame the issue with Muslim girls being compelled to wear skirts contrary to the precepts of their faith. Of course, I suppose a Christian school does not have to face that issue, but what about girls and boys with birth marks or scars on their legs? They have no option but to expose this. In the late 1990s parents, especially the middle class, who turned their back on a liberal approach to education, saw the revival of uniform as somehow connected to discipline. Of course, uniform avoids the problem of school becoming a fashion parade and fights over expensive trainers, but that did not mean having to change uniform back to the pre-1976 model. Ties have come back for girls and boys, fortunately now elasticated, though that was forced again by fear of litigation over health and safety rather than practicality. Many schools have the sensible 'French Foreign Legion' style caps with the neck protector, but the school I am talking about has simply revived the old fashioned school cap and stuck it on the head of boys and girls. The boys look like mini-versions of Brian Johnson of heavy metal band AC/DC, not really appropriate for school in the 2000s, more worringly the girls look too much like St. Trinians pupils.

People need to understand that uniform is fine for school children, but a uniform that is suited to the demands of the 2000s not the 1950s. We need to return to the practical style of the 1980s. I am sure some schools do, though none in the cities I visit regularly. To compel children into outfits that segregate them on basis of gender, take no consideration of religious or medial needs and open them up to ridicule, is a bad way to run things and must increase the challenges, already numerous, that teachers face on a daily basis. The ironic thing is, parents in their 30s now were born in the mid-1970s and went to school in the early 1980s and so never wore the kind of uniform they are happy to see foisted on their children. Just because it was seen as suitable for your parents does not mean you should force it on your children. Realise what good education is about, and it is not based on looking like children from an Enid Blyton story.

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