Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, 1953
A parent stopped me in my tracks with a question. ‘What’s the main difference between secondary and primary?’ I found myself adapting the line about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Secondaries do everything that primaries do, but with 1800 children in the throes of adolescence.
It is in the nature of young people to question everything and argue about it loudly. They can get through more whys than a herd of toddlers and have an advanced facility for eye-rolling, teeth sucking and tutting. They can spot outrage from 1000 metres and injustice with their eyes closed. They are perpetually furious, excited, hot, cold, exhausted, overactive, simultaneously solipsistic while adopting the communitarian stance of a truculent shop steward of the 70s. And there are hundreds of them, quite a lot bigger than many of the adults commissioned by the public purse to guard and guide their development. They’d rather be asleep but are unbelievably awake and most people wouldn’t want to poke them with a stick.
There was a story in the news this week about a school sending home 152 children on one day for uniform infringements. These stories hit the press occasionally and reportage is divided between admiration for enforcing standards and exasperation at petty Headteachers, the adolescent dichotomy of being simultaneously for and against something.
I used to be agnostic about uniform. I’ve worked in good and bad schools with and without uniforms: the correlation is weak. There’s no empirical evidence to prove that uniform makes the blindest difference to learning and schools who use a traditional uniform as a proxy for traditional excellence are just using a proxy. Non-uniform days are lovely to see, and Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as a year 10 who’s planned an outfit for charity for weeks. So why persist with this mother of all battles?
So many reasons. The old one: uniform is a leveller, you can be rich or poor, but you all look the same in uniform. It’s true enough, but exploitation of the young means that accoutrements are financial indicators, and we allow trainers at Tallis, the ultimate exploitation garb. The convenience one, popular among the young: uniform is easy, you don’t have to decide what to wear, mornings are hard enough without fashion choices. The financial one: uniform is cheaper than not-uniform. Ours is pretty cheap comparatively, but a supermarket black blazer might cost less than our designer jumpers. The depressing one: everyone needs to wear a uniform in later life so you might as well wear business dress now. That has the disadvantage of just not being true. The aesthetic-tidy argument: children look tidier en masse if they’re all dressed the same. The control one: demonstrate that you’re fussy about small things and the large things will look after themselves. Ho hum.
My year 7s and I are tussling with postmodernism in religious thought (a good job it’s Monday mornings) and I reckon I’m a uniform postmodernist. We all have to make decisions about our schools. We have to have a look at our community and decide what’s right, for us, now. We look at the traditions and make a decision. For me, the egalitarian, convenient, financial, that’s-what-adults-wear, tidy and control arguments contain some but insufficient elements of truth. It is the uniform as a community builder that persuades me.
No matter how annoying they find it, young people both like and need to belong. It is in the strength of that belonging-longing that great schools excel. A school uniform may be dull, purple or glorious Tallis turquoise but it marks us apart: we belong to this community with these values. We wear it in accordance with the rules as a mark of respect for each other and our community. Our uniform is a walking symbol of commitment to a collective reality. That daily reality, of flawed humans young and old, trying to build a model community is well worth dressing up for.