Most mornings on the way to work I pass students flowing out of Fulham Broadway tube station en route to the London Oratory School. They are an assorted bunch. Some seem more confident than others. One or two of the boys look immaculate, while others have clearly stirred their cornflakes with their ties. Some of the girls appear remarkably grown- up for their age — but presumably that’s my ‘how-come-policemen-are-getting-younger’ syndrome.
What they share apart, obviously, from wishing they were still tucked up in bed, is a uniform chosen for them by the school, which they have adapted with varying success to their own personalities or moods on any given day. They might think their uniforms are in some way stifling and repressing their true personalities, but nothing could be further from the truth. The room for individuality within a prescribed collective is obvious for everyone to see outside Fulham Broadway station. The colours may all be the same, but every ensemble is different. It was ever thus with school uniform — and my goodness how I used to hate it when I was a student. But I would defend it now as rigorously as I despised it then.
Learning to get around rules without technically breaking them is a life-skill, and one that’s useful to pick up at an early age. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a rule at my school that boys’ hair could not cover the ears or go too far over the collar. So bolshy specimens like me used to tuck our locks behind our ears like curtains folded over spindles and keep our heads at an angle when engaged in conversation with officious teachers whom we knew took an unsavoury delight in following the letter rather than spirit of the law.
Students need something to butt up against and school uniforms provide it in a harmless but provocative sort of way. I took it just a little too far. My theories at the time were based largely on the writings of Charles Reich or, more specifically, his bestseller, The Greening of America, which was published in 1970 and serialised to great acclaim in the New Yorker.
Reich — still with us, now aged 87 and living in California — was a little-known Yale law-school professor who became an unlikely counter-culture hero. The cover of his book proclaimed: ‘There is a revolution coming… it will originate with the individual and with culture and will change the political structure only as its final act… this is the revolution of the new generation.’ His opus — written ‘with the rigour of an intellectual and the enthusiasm of a teenager’, as one reviewer put it — was infectiously positive about the future and encouraged a new consciousness to help us avoid becoming ‘creatures of the machine’.
‘Psuedo nonsense,’ I hear my old schoolmasters saying, and they might well have been right. But this book gave me some vital ammunition in the battle against authority. Reich addressed uniformity rather than school uniform specifically, but he did touch on the whole question of how we dress. He thought conventional baggy trousers of the kind worn at our school made no allowance for individuality, whereas tight jeans shaped to one’s body were expressive, honest and open.
Perhaps, like me, he sees things differently more than 40 years later. Certainly, there have been a lot of academic studies done about school uniform. In America, the Long Beach School District in New York State — which did not introduce uniforms until 1994 — reported fewer absences and truancies, fewer suspensions and less vandalism as a result of its uniform policies. Better grades, too.
Bill Clinton waded into the argument in no uncertain terms during his State of the Union address in 1996, when he said: ‘If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.’ At the time, only some 25 per cent of schools in America insisted on them.
I dare say future arguments over school dress will be about ‘gender classification’ and how it makes no allowances for those unclear about whether they are male or female. Brighton College seems to be leading the way in this respect with a recent decision to offer all pupils the option to wear either trousers or a skirt. Future students will no doubt be allowed to explore their ‘gender identities’ and we’re bound to be told about the harm that can be done by forcing a boy who wants to be a girl to wear a jacket and tie.
But we have not quite got to that point yet. For now, we should celebrate school uniform in all of its beautiful and hideous forms. And that’s the joy of it: no one really minds how absurd or awful it looks. That’s not the point.
Not so long ago I visited Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, which probably has the most eccentric school uniform in the country: long blue coats and knee-length socks in English-mustard yellow. The buttons on the coat depict the head of the school’s founder, Edward VI, and were introduced more than 200 years ago.
With such a solid commitment to the past, I’m sure Christ’s Hospital is in good fettle to navigate its way towards an enlightened future. And I suspect dear old Charles Reich would go along with that.