12 December 2023
From the famous tailcoats of Eton College and straw hats of Harrow School to ubiquitous state primary sweatshirts and Sainsbury’s polo three-packs, school uniform is as much a part of the fabric of British life as a cup of tea or fish and chips. But in these times of hybrid working - where suits and ties are practically extinct in the workplace, and the footwear of choice leans more towards New Balance or Nike than Church’s or Loake - what’s the point of it?
As far back as 1222, when the Archbishop of Canterbury mandated that ecclesiastical students wear a robe-like outfit called the ‘cappa clausa’, uniform has been a firm feature of the British education system. One of the first iterations of a more formal school uniform was documented in 1552 when The Christ’s Hospital charity – a school founded to home, clothe and feed London’s poorest children and still known for its distinctive dress today – issued an obligatory uniform to its scholars to make them stand out from other children. Barely altered in 470 years, Christ’s Hospital School describes its iconic ensemble as a ‘great leveller’ of its pupils, who still come from all walks of life and of whom only 22 per cent pay full fees. Not just this, but it’s the only school we know of that provides full uniform free of charge to all 900 of its students, recycling every garment apart from the belt buckle when they leave (pupils take that with them). Wearing the uniform also grants free access to the Tower of London – not many schools can claim that.
Christ’s Hospital told us that uniform transgression – that most basic rite of teenage passage – doesn’t happen there, but experience tells us that pupils from other schools, however prestigious, don’t all wear their uniform with such deference. Skirt rolling (recently stamped out by Dean Close with the ‘checkmate’ introduction of ankle length skirts for sixth form girls), wayward shirt tails and ‘creative’ tie styling are just the tip of the iceberg in most schools. The shaggy and unkempt mullet, famed 1980s hairdo of Pat Sharp and Jason Donovan, was resurrected in the late noughties at Eton College, spreading like a virus across the south-eastern public school circuit and still going strong (‘The posher the school, the worse the haircut,’ according to one parent source). Pupils at top London school, Westminster, are famously scruffy, mainly thanks to Transport For London. ‘We all left the house looking tidy but travelling to school by tube meant most of us arrived looking like we’d been dragged through a hedge backwards’, one alumnus told us.
Unattractive school uniforms – and grumbling about them – is nothing new. In the very first edition of The Good Schools Guide, published in 1986, we write in our review of Cheltenham Ladies’ College: ‘"They call us greenflies," said a girl, “but not unkindly”. Uniform a ghastly green tweed which mingles well with Cotswold mink of country shoppers’. This uniform is still going strong, and we imagine generations of old girls are unable to face wearing a certain grassy hue ever again, regardless of its fashion status. Those of us who were forced to wear brown can certainly relate (Channing School alumnae, we see you).
Uniforms undoubtedly bring a degree of ‘levelling’, but does it really make a difference to the academic standards of a school? At St Paul’s Girls’ School, a regular in the highest reaches of league tables, pupils wear their own clothes every day. The most recent Good Schools Guide review says this ‘supports the ethos of embracing individuality’. Parents told us the lack of uniform is ‘very freeing for staff too’. Similarly, the bottle green uniform of high performing state-maintained school, The Camden School for Girls, was abolished in the late 60s. Daily mufti is ‘seen to be part of the school’s liberal and progressive ethos, with all students encouraged to be politically aware and engaged in community action and activities’, according to our latest review. We certainly see the logic in freeing teachers up to concentrate on education with fewer rules to enforce, particularly with a motivated and broadly well-behaved cohort.
At the other end of the spectrum, smart and distinctive uniforms are increasingly prioritised in the state-maintained sector, with multi-academy trusts often introducing them when they acquire a school in need of improvement. The uniform at Ealing Fields High School in west London, with its sharp grey and yellow hues, could be mistaken for a private school uniform - as could that of the famous Michaela Community School in Wembley. More than a mere branding exercise, these schools instill in their pupils that taking pride in their appearance leads to pride in work, hence better academic performance. Michaela’s uniform policy states that ‘it encourages our pupils to develop habits for life. By learning to polish their shoes, fold trousers or hang up their blazers, pupils learn the habits of discipline and personal responsibility that will stay with them for life’. We imagine that these were the exact values held dear to the first pupils to wear the cappa clausa, the tailcoats of Eton College or the breeches of Christ’s Hospital.
The flip side of the coin is that pupils made to stick to strict uniform rules in the interests of all being equal is that inequality can become starkly apparent on non-uniform days, when a hierarchy of expensive designer fashion can suddenly emerge. Bedales famously has no uniform and ‘fashion trends are far less of a thing than at many schools, with most students clad in jeans and trainers’, according to our latest review. ‘They aren’t interested in high street fashion,’ says a parent. ‘There’s no designer clothing and no pressure’.
Uniform, no uniform, religiously adhered to or worn with a cheeky flourish, school dress codes are here to stay. The heritage and variety of uniforms speaks volumes about the ethos and culture of our schools and adds to the rich choice on offer to parents when choosing a British education for their children.
Photo credit: Christ's Hospital School, West Sussex