17 September 2008
Look at them. The most unruly bunch of children ever to empty an inkwell down a teacher's back, and yet most of them are wearing their school tie.
I was driving past my old school at chucking out time lately and noticed that the students were wearing a rather different school uniform to the one I was forced into 24 years ago.
The contrast is amazing. In 1984, I arrived for my first day in a shirt, school tie, school jumper and Farah slacks (though the all-important 'F' label on the back pocket was quickly cut off by Andrew Headley during the first textiles lesson).
We were allowed to wear either a blue shirt or a white shirt. The tie was compulsory. The jumper wasn't, but most kids had one of a sort, even if it wasn't the official one bearing the badge. Trousers had to be grey or navy blue, but not black. Skirts were (I assume, judging by my old photos) subjected to an identical colour restriction. The only mild concession was in footwear, with many kids choosing without fear of admonishment to wear trainers rather than something black, shiny and not covered in stripes. Girls could wear basic make-up and rings on their fingers but nothing more than studs in their ears.
Nowadays, there's a marked difference. For a start, the kids don't wear ties. The old school tie (light blue with thin, white diagonal stripes) is long gone. More bizarrely, they don't even wear shirts. A black polo shirt - ie, a T-shirt with a small collar and three buttons - is the standard piece of clothing, complete with the school logo. There is a sweatshirt version too - and if kids wear the sweatshire, they can't wear anything other than the polo shirt (and presumably, a vest if it's a bit parky) underneath.
When I was at the same school, polo shirts (always lacoste or Le Shark) were strictly forbidden. They were regarded as untidy by the authorities, even though the collar was more than adequate to hold up the tie. I recall one of my mates wearing such a polo shirt to school, with tie, and he received the bollocking of his life from Mr Cook, in front of the whole class (and numerous passing others) in a corridor outside one of the science labs. It was one of those classic bits of school overreaction - like those you got if you hadn't covered your exercise book in wallpaper properly, or had been spotted running down the corridor, or - the most heinous crime of them all - was carrying your sports bag over your shoulder. Oh, the trouble we'd get into. The lad who called one of our deputy headmasters a "SILLY ****" via very large white graffiti on the front of the school was barely punished more.
But now, the polo shirt is requisite. And it's black - the one colour which was resolutely banned when I was there. No black shirt, no black jumper, not even black trousers (or skirts) were permitted. The kids who went all Craig 'n' Rosie gothic at 15 were forever being sent home to change. There has been a change of headteacher since I left the sixth form in 1991, but nonetheless it was still the same head who imposed these sweeping changes to the school dress (as it was called) as the one who made sure teachers vehemently enforced the rules on shirts, ties and lack of black outfits.
I suspect they've done it because uniform is more and more expensive and the polo shirts represent a cheaper and simpler option while still maintaining the main purpose of uniforms - to make sure kids all look the same, irrespective of their background.
And I suppose even back in 1984 I was lucky with the uniform - when my brother pitched up three years earlier, he had to wear a blazer. I wouldn't wish a blazer on my worst enemy.