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Have traditional school uniforms had their time?

By Kate Hilpern

School uniformsNo September would be complete without the hordes of tabloid headlines around strict headteachers putting children in isolation or sending them home for inappropriate uniforms. But is it me, or do  the numbers seem to get bigger and bigger every year? Not just the number of schools clamping down, but the number of kids involved. A whopping 90 kids were in the receiving end of such chastisement at one school - Ysgol Rhosnesni in Wrexham, north Wales.

Apparently, god forbid, they arrived in trainers and ‘inappropriate skirts’ – with the draconian policy and punishment, according to some parents, descending into ‘madness.’ One, with a child in year 11, said her daughter was punished for wearing trousers that had lycra in. A second pair were also deemed unacceptable for being ‘ankle grazers.’

Perhaps what we’re really seeing here is the beginning of the end of traditional school uniforms as we know them. It might sound contradictory, but hear me out. Could it be that the more conventional headteachers are hanging on by the skin of their teeth to an institution that just doesn’t get the respect and buy-in that it once did? In other words, these old-style heads are having to fight all the harder to try and win what is ultimately a losing battle.

There are other signs that traditional school uniforms are on their way out, one of which is the growth in gender-neutral school uniforms – something that 40 per cent of adults favour, according to a new report from pollster YouGov Omnibus. Four-in-10 adults say boys and girls should be able to wear trousers or skirts to school, according to the survey. This was the most popular option of four in a survey on school uniforms – something that the TES reports as ‘reflecting a gradual shift towards more relaxed dress codes in schools.’

Gender-neutral school uniforms are already common in many schools across the country and even in schools where it has been frowned upon, students have been seen to be voting with their feet, with boys having made a series of high-profile protests which saw them wear skirts to school to show they support change.

Let’s face it, most young people (and many parents) loathe the Victorian and Edwardian influenced and gender-stereotyped fashions and suffocating top buttons of school uniforms – although politicians have been quick to keep them a strong part of British culture. When Michael Gove was education secretary, he even published a white paper urging all schools to introduce not just uniform, but blazers and ties, reflecting the long-held belief by Conservatives that high performance and strict uniform are inextricably linked. This summer, many young people paid a heavy price for such rules, with parents right across the country expressing grave concerns over children having to wear blazers in the scorching weather.

It's not as if schools that have a no-uniform policy have poor educational outcomes. Far from it, with some of the highest-achieving countries having no uniform at all. Finland – which tops international league tables – is among them.

When we’ve spoken to headteachers of schools with no uniform, they talk about how ‘celebrating difference,’ ‘promoting freedom of expression, individuality and having your own voice’ and ‘students feeling comfortable and confident’ works wonders for students reaching their educational potential.

And while much is made of uniforms enhancing school pride, unity and community spirit, heads of schools with no uniforms tell us these can be achieved in other ways, including shared values - and it’s impossible to deny the loyalty from students towards their no-uniform schools. ‘It’s as if these kids recognise the privilege they get and return it with good and responsible behaviour,’ one head told us. ‘As for the argument that school uniforms can save parents money, I’d point out that all children have clothes for home anyway,’ said one.

One school told us they thought school uniforms were distracting. ‘If you ask our teachers who have taught in more traditional British schools, they will say how liberating it is for them not to have to spend time at the beginning of each lesson or out and about in the school telling children to straighten their tie or do up their top button. Instead, they can concentrate on actual teaching.’

Perhaps most telling of all, no-uniform schools tell us there’s a sort of self-imposed uniform among the students anyway – a perfectly sensible one of jeans or leggings and a comfortable top. And that goes for girls as well as boys.

School uniforms, conclude these more liberal schools, harp back to a command-and-control era when children were put in their place and were to be seen and not heard. No wonder they find ways to rebel against it or, when there are so many rules around them, inadvertently find they’ve got it wrong.

For now, over 90 per cent of schools in England still have one, and I’m not suggesting that’s going to change overnight – or ever in many schools. But I can definitely smell a whiff of change in the air and I think it’s paving the way for a more modern, progressive approach to clothing worn in schools at least in some areas of the country.

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