In response to soaring hemlines some headteachers are now forcing girls to wear trousers. But have dress codes ever really improved education and discipline?
For the war against inappropriately short school-uniform hemlines, it is the nuclear option. Like the war on drugs or the war on terror, the struggle between implacable authorities and their tirelessly inventive foes over what is worn in schools is perennial and almost certainly futile. Pupils have hitched and rolled up their skirts since time immemorial and teachers have been forced to brandish tape measures and, ultimately, suspend or expel recalcitrant teens.
Now, however, as those unwelcome back-to-school posters go up in shop windows, female students are finding their autumn-term shopping lists are skirtless. Northgate School in Ipswich is the latest in a growing number of secondary schools to make girls wear trousers. “Unfortunately, despite contacting specific parents, sending some girls home to change, requiring others to wear a school-owned skirt for the day and repeatedly asking others to unroll their skirts at the waist, we still had some girls coming to school in inappropriate skirts,” explained headteacher David Hutton. “I have therefore introduced a trousers-only policy, which will enable my staff to focus their time and effort on providing pupils with the best education possible.”
Debates over uniform are a timeless and neverending distraction for teachers, parents and pupils. A thick blue woollen trench coat over a white shirt, breeches and yellow knee-length socks is claimed to be the first uniform in Britain, worn by the poor pupils of Christ’s Hospital school in London. More than 450 years have passed and Christ’s Hospital has relocated to leafy Horsham but its pupils still sport a remarkably similar uniform – breeches, yellow socks and all. Last September, pupils even voted to keep their ancient uniform which, unusually, the school buys for them. Uniforms were introduced at charity schools during the reign of King Henry VIII to instil discipline and that, roughly, is where the debate in Britain remains today.
Except that teenage ingenuity continues to push the boundaries. “Girls’ skirts are getting shorter by the minute or should I say the second they leave my form room,” says one year 10 tutor. “If their skirts aren’t being rolled up by the means of a carefully crafted process on the way to their next lesson, they get their parents to buy elastic bands to wrap around their tiny waists.”
As one piece of apparel is criminalised, another way round it is skirted. Some pupils take a principled stance against discrimination. Male pupil Chris Whitehead, 12, wore a girls’ knee-length skirt this summer in protest against Impington Village College, Cambridgeshire, which banned shorts for boys but allowed girls to wear airy skirts. Other students deploy more timeless logic. In Scotland, one group responded to headteachers’ calls for stricter uniform rules with panache: “It’s not fair. Why should old men in terrible suits tell us how to dress?”
Popular culture has long dramatised our uniform battles. The ultimate goal of Grange Hill’s rebellious Student Action Group was to abolish uniform. (“Uniform’s a drag, go with SAG,” as their protest posters daringly suggested. Uniform disputes are often students’ first experience of the power of collective action – 100 pupils at Upton-by-Chester high school joined a protest in 2009 against its new mandatory trousers-for-girls policy.) At Grange Hill, the SAG won and uniforms were abolished for about half a series until new headmistress Mrs McClusky struck back. In my Grange Hill-era schooldays we wore our ties with 4cm of the thin end on display. More recently, Catherine Tate’s bovvered schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper, copied contemporary teen trends by wearing her tie short, wide and with a fat knot. Some schools have suppressed knot subversion with clip-on ties.
Just like weaponry, the rules and regulations over school uniforms have got more formidable in recent years. The trend is definitely for more uniform. The girls-must-wear-trousers rule seems bizarrely topsy-turvy to those who were schooled in the 80s, when girls had to fight for the right to wear trousers. In my day, we got away with more or less anything at Reepham high school in Norfolk, provided it was black, grey or white: black jeans, trainers, polo shirts, chunky-knit cardigans, hippie skirts, miniskirts. But those were bucolic, innocent times: no one had a tattoo and tramlines were as radical as a haircut got. Now Reepham has been revamped as a specialist science, mathematics and vocational school, with an outstanding Ofsted report to boot, and the pupils even wear blazers. Uniforms have also been reintroduced in some sixth forms – in one case because girls were trying to outdo each other with the pyjamas they wore each day.
Schools argue they need strict uniforms for all sorts of reasons: modern favourites are health and safety and the fear that teenage girls are vulnerable in an increasingly sexualised world, swayed into degeneracy by the sort of short-skirt look peddled in that Britney Spears video. The most acceptable liberal argument is that uniforms are an egalitarian “instrument of social levelling”, as the Schoolwear Association, which represents schoolwear manufacturers, points out. Uniforms probably do reduce competitive dressing although one kid in uniform can still assess the parental income of another kid in uniform with a bat of their eyelid. And studies show that children still get bullied because of their appearance, even when dressed in uniform.
The evidence that school uniforms improve discipline and behaviour is not conclusive. The Bash Street Kids have worn uniform ever since they first appeared in the Beano in 1954 and that has not made them behave any better. In the US, economists at the University of Houston recently found that attendance among students who wore uniforms improved by between 0.3 and 0.4%. But the researchers, Elisabetta Gentile and Scott Imberman, concluded: “We find little evidence that uniforms have lasting impacts on achievement [or] grade retention … In terms of discipline we also find little evidence of uniform effects.”
Is getting tied in knots over uniform a peculiarly British problem? “There is something extremely peculiar about the British obsession with uniforms, which is part of something bigger,” agrees Professor Efrat Tseëlon of Leeds University. Uniforms are far less common in almost every European country although they have increased dramatically in the past 20 years in the US, linked to attempts to control gang culture. Tseëlon, a social psychologist specialising in visual appearance, says the British devotion to uniform reflects “a general etiquette towards children” defined by power, control and a lack of trust. There is no evidence that uniforms increase discipline and arguments about “levelling” are just “conscience laundering” – uniforms are used for precisely the opposite purpose by fee-paying (and an increasing number of specialist state) schools: as a badge of distinction. What about tussles over uniform being irrelevant distractions from learning? “The only party who is obsessed with it to the point of distracting schooling is the school itself,” says Tseëlon. “By excluding pupils or sending them home they are the ones disrupting the education, not the children themselves.”
Most parents would probably agree that trousers for girls at least won’t increase the sexualisation of teenagers. But Tseëlon argues that such rules are not for the pupils but for the adults – because British teachers and parents are so uncomfortable with expressions of teenage sexuality. “They want to create these barriers – the barrier of uniform,” she says. Ultimately, she argues, look at uniformless European schools: have teenage morals disintegrated because they are not wearing ties and blazers?
Those who hope that moving girls into trousers is the final solution for pupil v school battles over uniforms will be sadly disappointed come September. One head has already had to blacklist Miss Sexy-branded trousers because they were considered too tight and revealing. Uniform lawmakers may possess the power to make rules and punish those who break them but they lack the logic-challenging genius of teenagers to bend rules to their will.
The struggle of schools to grapple with pupils’ uniforms mirrors the struggle of every adult to comprehend the teenage mind. This is wonderfully displayed in the clumsiness of the language of uniform regulation. “Large fashion-type trainers with high ankle support are NOT acceptable,” says my old school’s PE uniform policy. What, so hi-tops are, like, banned, Sir? Pupils’ ties must be “worn properly”. But who says a fat tie ain’t proper, Miss? It is not hard to imagine the excuses come September. Article source