Watching a history of AC/DC the other evening I found myself trying to explain to my son why Angus Young’s on-stage outfit of school uniform, complete with cap and shorts, was so iconic to people of my age, and why it caused us such a mixture of amusement and admiration.
Now to be honest I have never really understood why school uniform is still a thing. That isn’t to say I haven’t heard all the arguments for and against, rehearsed ad nauseam – there are whole websites devoted to this. I just don’t get why this oddly militaristic anachronism has any serious support from many otherwise intelligent people in the world of UK education who apparently feel better if all children look the same when being schooled.
Periodically there will be a fuss in the media, as another headteacher is thrust into the limelight for attempting to enforce their school’s uniform code. Last summer, for example, it was the turn of Rye Academy on the Isle of Wight to make the headlines, as 250 girls were sent home for having uniform skirts that were deemed to be too short. As with most things to do with the Isle of Wight, I was immediately transported back some 50 years or so, this time to the uniform battles of my own school days.
Hemlines have been a uniform battleground for my entire life in education, though as a boy I managed to skirt around this particular challenge. In the early 60s the local girls’ grammar school had a deputy head who used to order girls to drop to their knees in the corridor, then produced a measure to ensure that the hemline was within an inch of the floor. As with today’s teenagers, all girls in the 60s were adept at rolling skirts at the waist so that their hem reached a fashionable length, and even more adept at quickly unrolling them as they knelt down. Now the same school had also had black stockings as part of its dress code for many years, along with St Trinian’s. But when black stockings suddenly became fashionable in 1962, along with the Beatles and the north, within months the school had changed the regulation to ‘flesh-coloured stocking or tights’. And that’s when I first realised that school uniform was not only a militaristic approach to suppress individuality and creativity, it was also a mechanism which was deliberately designed to make teenagers appear unfashionable.
It wasn’t only the girls of my schooldays who faced this challenge in their most self-conscious and formative years of course. When I first went to secondary school, not only was it compulsory to wear shorts in the first year (today’s Year 7), humiliating enough, but the uniform even included a school cap.
Now even in those far off days the only boys in Yorkshire that you ever saw in such caps, or indeed almost any form of headgear, were in the scouting movement. Cubs wore caps, and Angus Young, AC/DC and post-modern irony hadn’t even been born. So having to wear them over the age of 11 was about as humiliating an expectation as one could devise. As a relatively compliant 11 year old I did indeed have a school cap, purchased by my conformist mum, which duly got carried in my pocket too and from school. Sadly this gesture wasn’t enough to prevent the punishment meted out to a school prefect who happened to live near me, and who was seen walking along chatting to me in my capless state half a mile from the school. Apparently he should have clapped me in detention for such an act of wilful disobedience. So we both found ourselves in the same detention, which was even more humiliating for him than for me. I wondered what sort of petty teacher actually took the time to note these minor transgressions in the absurd world of school, or even outside it. Then one day, not many years later, I realised that it was now meant to be me.
When I was first a sixth-form tutor one of the many expectations was that I would enforce the school uniform regulations, particularly in my own tutor group. As with many schools, one of the so-called privileges of sixth form life was that students no longer need to wear the traditional school blazer with its heraldic crest. At least at this school the heraldic crest was authentic, being the coat of arms of the school’s fifteenth century founder, rather than something knocked up in the school’s art department to allow the school outfitter an even greater mark up on the bottom line. But the sixth form students were pleased to see the back of it, nonetheless. However this did not mean they were regulation free. The presence of jacket, tie, shirt, trousers and shoes was not only demanded but in several aspects detailed to the nth degree. Jackets had to have lapels (another Beatle legacy), ties couldn’t be garish, shoes had to be black or brown, and definitely not trainers, whilst trousers had to be black or charcoal grey, and ‘not widely flared’.
Now the sartorially well-informed amongst you, even those ignorant of my age or career trajectory, will realise that this ‘not widely flared’ phrase from the school dress regulations firmly fixes the period of my sixth-form stewardship in the mid-70s. Ah yes, that best-forgotten time when trousers flared to loon dimensions, ties broadened to compete with lapels to cover the entire chest, and the mullet haircut was actually fashionable, if not yet named. Even the Beatles wore the previously- and subsequently-despised tank tops, accompanied by heavily-patterned shirts and moustaches. Never a good look, not even on them. And probably the worst era for male fashion in my 70 years on the planet. Though I must confess to actually adopting moustache, tank top, flared trousers and kipper tie at the time, such was the pressure to conform, particularly as a newly-arrived Yorkshire teacher whose accent already marked him out for mockery – see Gamification: what’s the points.
Actually the rather pathetic moustache was not really an attempt to conform, but rather an attempt to distinguish myself from my charges. As a relatively young teacher, several of my sixth form group not only towered over me but actually looked older than I did. After a rather embarrassing episode, when a frustrated school photographer turned to me, and my sixth form group, and said indignantly, ‘When is your b***** form teacher going to turn up?’ I felt I needed something to indicate my elevated status. Students were barred from sporting facial hair of any kind, so I seized upon the pathetic moustache. But when I said it was to distinguish myself from my charges, this is probably the least valid use of the concept of distinguished that you will ever encounter. But I digress.
Each morning at registration I was meant to check that my students conformed to the rather sad dress code, which I duly did. Certain traditional colleagues did take pride in spotting dress-code transgressions by my students, and took great delight in telling me of them in the staffroom at break. One day there was a rather bitter exchange as I pulled up one of my students, “It’s unfair”, he moaned, “you always tell us off and make us conform, even though you don’t really believe in school uniforms, when Mr E******** let’s his class get away with anything, and never checks”. Now this came as a real eye-opener to me, as Mr E********, who looked somewhat like today’s Jacob Rees Mogg, was not only always impeccably dressed in traditional three-piece suits, but was among the first to point out any sartorial transgressions of my form, to whom he taught physics. Sure enough, as I soon observed, his own sixth form group frequently avoided the regulations with apparent impunity. Another valuable teaching lesson learnt, many of those in a staffroom most strident over any school rule are the least effective at implementing it.
The school had a newly-created Sixth Form Council, an early attempt to introduce the concept of student voice and democracy by a relatively liberal head-teacher. Each sixth form group elected a representative, who attended along with their tutor. The council was chaired by the Head of Sixth Form, with the Head also in attendance. Agenda items were generated and selected by the sixth formers themselves, and any matter concerning the organisation and running of the school was meant to be fair game for discussion, with a democratic voting system, too. So when I went along to my first meeting of the Council I was not surprised to see that the school sixth form uniform regulations were on the agenda.
The discussion went along predictable lines, and I was eventually given an opportunity to speak. I pointed out that my main objection was to the phrase ‘not widely flared’ for trousers, which immediately put the dress regulations in a position of seeming to be anti-fashion, rather than being seen as promoting dressing well. And recounted that the regulations that I had had to follow in my own sixth form career, less than ten years before, when the regulation had actually stated ‘black or charcoal grey trousers, not tightly-tapered.’ For I was a teenager of the 60s, and all that had changed in 10 years was the fashion. A good uniform regulation (should it be required) I suggested, would surely stipulate what trousers should be, not what they shouldn’t be? It could say ‘trousers with between 14” and 16” bottoms’, for example (no prizes for guessing that I taught science)?
Needless to say, when we proceeded to the vote, I realised why the much-vaunted Staff Student Council was so constituted. The staff united behind the Head of Sixth Form and Head, and the motion to review uniform regulations was duly defeated. I was the only tutor to vote along with every Sixth Form rep in favour of reconsideration of the regulations. A few days later I was even carpeted by the Head of Sixth Form for having the temerity to vote with the students. When I pointed out the wording of the Council’s constitution emphasised its democratic nature, he was appalled by my naivety. Another valuable teaching lesson learned about tokenism in student voice, and fake school democracy.
Many years later I again found myself carpeted in a Deputy head’s office, as I was read the riot act on my son’s flagrant disregard of the school’s uniform regulations. On this occasion it was his unwise choice of hair colour. Now I must admit that I also didn’t approve of his decision to have anime-influenced two-tone hair, partly because I suspected it was mainly a ruse to ingratiate himself with the girl who had applied her hairdressing skills, and had cost him a significant amount of cash. He had of course not sought parental permission – what self-respecting 15 year old would, knowing a ‘No chance’ was inevitable? So I was torn between agreeing with the deputy head on my son’s unwise choice of hair colour, and defending my son’s right to attend school – as he had been escorted off the premises for this breach of regulations and barred from returning.
Then I suddenly heard what was being said by an increasingly indignant deputy as I pleaded for his return. “What sort of school would allow pupils with dyed hair to come in and disrupt education like this?” That settled it. “Last week I was visiting one of the best schools in Finland as part of a study tour to find out why their school system was so much more effective than ours,” I said politely. “ I was discussing this with a group of 16 year old Helsinki pupils whose understanding and ability to discuss the philosophy and pedagogy of their school was way beyond that of many children in the UK – and in their second language! The girl on my left had bright green hair, and the girl to my right had bright pink hair. No-one thought this exceptional or worthy of comment. Maybe if English schools started to worry more about what was inside children’s head rather than on the outside it we could start to aspire to Finnish education standards?”
Of course I then went and paid to have his hair dyed black all over so that he would be
allowed to return to his studies. But I will never really understand why we have this obsession with and a desire for uniformity of appearance in our school children. Unless, as someone very influential once said to me, if we can keep them arguing about the uniform, and the school dinners, it distracts them from challenging the things that *really* matter in education?
Picture sources : Wikimedia Commons or Private Collection.