Uniform at School?

I noticed a little news item this morning about school uniforms and thought I’d comment, because I think the author of the piece misses some important points.

I had to wear a uniform when I went to my secondary school, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne. I got a place there under the Direct Grant system, after passing the 11+ examination. It was basically a private school but I won a scholarship and my parents didn’t have to pay anything, which was just as well as they would never have been able to afford the fees.

I should mention that when I went to the RGS, in the 1970s, it was only for boys, but it is now for boys and girls.

Before actually starting at the RGS (in September 1974) we were sent a list of things that would be needed including various items of sports gear and, of course, the uniform. This included a distinctive blue* blazer with the school crest on the pocket. That was for the first two or three years. After that we got to wear a black/dark grey blazer which more closely resembled what other schools required and in the sixth form it was even more flexible, with many of the boys wearing a suit.

The list of things to be bought was quite long but we didn’t have to worry about the cost because we weren’t very well off and I qualified for vouchers from the Council to buy everything.

I was mightily relieved that I got to turn up for my first day at school in a new uniform because I didn’t have any good clothes – most of my normal clothes were hand-me-downs from my older brother. If I’d just worn my usual things it would have made be feel even more out of place than I did anyway, as all the posh kids would have been dressed much better than me. The uniform was a relief because it put everyone on the same footing – at least at a superficial level.

The big problem was that I had to travel every day on the bus from Benwell (a rough area, where I lived) to Jesmond (a posh area, where the RGS was and still is). The bright blue blazer was very conspicuous and I often got picked on by local kids while en route there or back. I remember getting spat on more than once. In the end I decided to wear a big coat over my uniform to avoid it being recognized, even on hot days.

The value of the uniform seemed to me that it was a leveller. It wasn’t really anything about expressing loyalty to the school, nor was it a means of imposing discipline and obedience, it just helped diminish the effect of parental wealth. In an environment in which social class was such a prominent factor it seemed to me that the uniform was a good thing. My friends from wealthier families disliked the uniform, usually for the same reason that I liked it.

I’m all in favour of updating the style of uniform to a more neutral, less gender-specific style – especially for coeducational schools – but I think as long as schools take in kids from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds then on balance they’re a good concept.

Anyway, you probably disagree so here’s a poll:

P.S. Our school had an exchange programme with a school in Germany – the Max Planck Gymnasium in Gelsenkirchen. When I was told the name I assumed the kids were all fantastic athletes, but then a teacher explained that the name came from the Greek word gymnos meaning “naked”. That minimal approach to a school uniform would never have taken on in Newcastle, on grounds of the weather among other reasons, but I learnt (to my disappointment) that it was only a metaphorical term anyway.

3 Responses to “Uniform at School?”

  1. In ancient Greece, a gymnasium was for both the body and the mind, and nudity was the rule.

  2. I see your point about levelling, but it depends on where one is. I went to a school with uniforms, but some students arrived in cars costing more than several years of an average person’s salary while others came in cars they had salvaged from the junk yard.

  3. As long as one is at a university which charges fees to students, by the same token shouldn’t the students wear uniforms?

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