There is a pile of clothes in my house that needs my attention. Actually, it’s more like three piles, but if I imagine it as one it somehow reduces itself into something more manageable. There’s usually a pile at this time of year, but this summer, it has grown, by at least an Everest to gigantic proportions. It is the School Uniform Pile, and, by dint of A starting a new school in September, there is not only a whole new set awaiting name tapes (he has assured me that he doesn’t mind me using the ones I got him when he started in Reception, the ones with little aeroplanes on), but another, in his drawers, awaiting sorting into Too Holey To Give Away and To Take To Place Of Work As Spares. I must also go through Sam’s and L’s piles of uniform to check for holes and fit at some point too.
My mother never had this mountain of stitching to traverse. My primary days were free of uniform; I trotted up the road to school (on my own or with my friend James) in hastily thrown on hand-me-downs or comfy favourites, depending on…nothing much really. Probably whatever came to my childish hand most quickly. My secondary school dictated colour (navy blue) and ties for boys, but that was about it, and I went to a Sixth Form College, where I discovered Doctor Martens (my dad was delighted by my diametrically oppositional-to-my-sister’s choice) and my tutors (not teachers) were known by their first names and, should you feel a little peckish, you were allowed to eat in lessons. The labelling of uniform is a job I detest, not only because I hate sewing (this is not putting it too mildly, I think, only yesterday I cackled mightily with a friend as she recounted her troubles at sewing the school badge on the blazer in such a way that it wasn’t wonky, a public advertisement of her lack of housewifery skills that her son must wear), but also because it signals the end of summer freedom and the return to school routine.
Not that Sam likes the unstructured summer holiday so much these days. Three times already I have had to persuade him out of his school uniform and into his home clothes and we’re only just half way through. I like his school uniform, though. It is plain and simple, designed with ease of dressing and comfort with children and young people with learning difficulties in mind. There are no twiddly ties or fiddly buttons to contend with. Apart from the odd inside out and back to front issue (you’d think with a v-neck jumper this wouldn’t happen – next year I am going to get him one with a badge) he can get himself sort-of smart in minutes. It is practical for me too, purchasable from the high street, cheap, wears forever and washes and washes and washes. What’s not to like?
Except that I didn’t always like Sam in school uniform. When he started in Reception I struggled to find bits that fitted him, he was so tiny. There weren’t any black shoes in his size. Long sleeves hung over his little hands. But the trousers. I found some for three year olds and felt like sobbing. What was I doing, putting my baby in old man scratchy trousers? Despite my best intentions to conform I found a pair of soft grey trousers and a couple of pairs of soft grey joggers and played the SEN card. Ease of dressing and comfort had to come fist, surely, over and above nasty, overly adult uniform.
Aside from the ease of washing, ease of choice in the morning and the corporate belonging of school uniform, sometimes I find myself wondering what we’re doing when we dress our ever younger children in it. At the beginning of the holidays I took A into the school shop, list in hand, so that we could get his kit while it was still in stock. While he mournfully tried on over-large blazers and rugby shirts, I, respectful of his 11 year old modesty, happened around the shop, looking at the other items on sale. Most of it was much of a muchness, but I was arrested by traditional caps, straw hats and winter and summer weight jackets in nasty brown, at £80 a pop. It seems that not only are some parents forking out so that their children may attend exclusive educational establishments, but also that they must re-mortgage themselves in order to advertise that fact whenever they step out of the front door to do the school run.
It could have been worse, mind you. On my way to work I am presented with a rainbow of blazers as sleepy teenagers drag themselves to bus stops. In the town of my workplace it seems that the schools compete not only over the heights of achievement on the league tables, but also in the heights of ridiculousness of the uniforms. Sometimes I wonder how they must feel, as they trudge through the town, a cacophony of colour from royal purple, to bottle green, through peacock blue and black with Dennis the Menace piping. At least they look cheap enough. Pocket book friendly nylon as opposed to Harris Tweed. And they aren’t capes. I have heard rumours of those.
And ties. I’m not sure what’s going on with them. We have infants starting school, conventional ties wrapped lovingly around their necks by their ever attentive mamas and, when you might think an ordinary child might reasonably be expected to have garnered a modicum of fine motor control, Velcro shoes notwithstanding, we have clip on ones. To stop them wearing them loose, apparently. Or too tight. I can’t help but wonder how many options for a minor rebellion they have left to them, these corporately dressed teens.
And Sixth Formers. In offfice dress. Why is that? So that they can prepare themselves for life as secretaries or cold callers, stuck in dreary open plan greyness, the stuff of nightmares? What is it we have got against freedom of dress that we must dictate so strictly to 16 and 17 year olds what they must wear to school? When did school uniform, the thing that set us free from corsets and bustles and all manner of Victorian fashion madness become to stifling?
Sometimes, when I take Sam to school and there is a non-uniform day at the comp next door, I think how nice they look. Almost to a child they walk up the road in straight trousers (different, usually muted colours) and a cosy hoody. They look exactly what they are, not dolls, dressed so that their parents can coo over how cute they are, or advertisements, to show how rich they are, or how privileged, but as they are. Themselves. Children.
We can’t be bothered to get changed when we get home.