A school dress code can help cash-strapped parents but we shouldn’t always judge by appearance, says Jane Bradley
Uniforms. They’re a funny thing. Some exist to create a level playing field - others to create inequalities. This week, schools south of the border came under fire from parents whose children were turned away on their first day of school because they were deemed to have contravened the uniform rules.
Angry parents flocked to the tabloids, posing for glum “people looking sad in newspapers” style pictures of their youngsters who are desperate to be in school.
Rules broken apparently included the colour of socks, the tightness of trousers and skirts that were a few centimetres shorter than the approved limit. Generally minor misdemeanours, yes. Over the top, debatable.
However, one girl claimed she had been turned away for wearing a school cardigan bought from the uniform shop - having left her blazer inside school over the holidays. Other parents said children with medical difficulties who needed to wear comfortable shoes such as trainers were being penalised.
Whether the teachers were in some instances, at least, being unreasonable or not will never be entirely clear, but the topic lit up message boards across the country, not the least on uber-parent chat site Mumsnet, where the parents were divided.
“Our secondary school rules said that canvas shoes weren’t allowed but kids wore them,” explained one parent, writing as Eyebrowsonfleek.
“One arbitrary day they decide to enforce the rule so I have to replace £40 brand new Vans.”
Fellow poster Budgiegirl had little sympathy. “It’s pretty silly to buy shoes that you know are against the rules, and you can’t really complain if you chose not to follow the rules,” she insisted. “But I can see how this came about, and therefore surely it is better to get tough on school uniform right from the first day.”
Perhaps it is. It is not so much the details of the uniform violations, but the fact that the child is violating them at all that is the problem. Teachers use uniform regulations as an example. If you overstep the line here, little Johnny, it says, you’ll feel the magnitude of my wrath. Imagine, just imagine, what would happen if you forget to do your homework, or you are caught canoodling behind the bike sheds.
Yes, many parents do not agree with school uniform and are happy to let their youngster stretch the rules - and expect the school to do the same.
Yet, I expect many of those parents would not be as chuffed if the school was lax about other rules, such as not letting the pupils smoke on the premises - or turning up to class.
That’s not to say I’m “Gestapo-like” - not my phrase, but the one used to describe the actions of poor headmaster Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Kent, about what children wear at school - but it does seem that creating a level playing field can only be a bonus for parents.
Can they have a new pair of Vans, the little darlings ask? No need to feel guilt about not treating your over-indulged child, when the school says no. Get back into your well-fitting, sensible school shoes and argue no more.
It is not just schoolchildren who compete based on appearance, however. This need for uniform appears to extend into the real world. Just last week, the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission released a bizarre report claiming that would-be investment bankers were prevented from getting jobs if they turned up to the interview wearing brown shoes with a business suit.
Doing so, prospective employers told investigators, indicated that the candidate was not a correct “fit” for the institution. They were not wearing the right uniform, you see.
And the problem exists at the other end of the formal spectrum, too.
On a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary about the hiring process at Aberdeenshire craft brewer Brewdog, staff who were due to be put in charge of recruiting for a new senior position were asked what would be their worst nightmare in terms of a prospective job candidate.
“We don’t want someone in a suit,” they replied through their uniformly bushy beards, near-identical jeans and t-shirts on display.
“We don’t want someone who doesn’t like beer and we want someone that looks good.” Queue three suited and booted, middle-aged candidates, who - perhaps for those reasons, perhaps for others, who knows – did not, ultimately get the job.
Both these examples show that allowing variations in uniforms can, even in the adult world, cause major problems.
Discussing the brown shoes issue, my colleague - himself not one of the public school-attending, black shoe wearing elite – was surprisingly understanding about the whole thing.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he insisted. “If you know, going to an interview with these banks, that they expect you to dress a certain way, then you have to play the game. After all, they’re paying you.”
I have to disagree. Among grown men and women, if there is no set professional uniform or dress code - so discounting nurses, lollipop ladies or policemen and women here - it seems that, in an ideal world, some degree of flexibility should be allowed.
Yes, if you are required to attend an external business meeting, ripped jeans and obscene sloganned T-shirts should perhaps be avoided. But most people should be credited with at least a modicum of common sense.
Yet, as the examples above demonstrate, this is just is not possible. Perhaps, after years of school uniforms, we find it impossible to comprehend that someone who is not dressed identically to us – whether decked out as striped-suited City boy or bearded, flat-capped hipster - could achieve a similar professional standard.
If we, as fully grown, supposedly mature adults, cannot manage to function at this level, there is nothing more for it. As soon as we are no longer entitled to wear school uniform, we should, by the state, be handed an “adult uniform”. A medium-pitched, smart-casual, generic outfit which we have to wear in all aspects of adult life - until we can learn to live together as mature human beings, at least.
Design ideas on a postcard, please.