Strictly speaking school uniform might not come under the heading of manners but perhaps it does in the sense that it implies dressing correctly. The requirement for school uniform is frequently a subject for debate. Those who consider it an infringement of personal liberty speak about individuality and choice, not to mention a drain on the domestic purse. Others who think it is probably a good idea – and I freely admit I belong in that camp – try to persuade the dissenters of its value.
School uniforms ensure that all students dress alike with no outrageous, expensive fashions-of-the-moment being flaunted by the most materially fortunate. Parents struggling to keep body and soul together are spared at least one of the status battles fought with their offspring. Uniforms also identify the schools from which students hail thus ensuring that misbehaving young people can be traced to their place of learning, there to be dealt with by those in charge. The idea is that scholars will look smart, feel part of a community and develop a spirit of kinship.
There are flaws to the arguments however.
School uniforms are usually adapted by the wearers and not always in the most attractive ways.
There is a distinct difference in the uniforms worn in state schools and those adopted by fee-paying establishments. State schools usually choose colours that are easily found in chain stores and do not always insist on a particular style so long as the clothes are 'respectable'. Thus parents can dress their children relatively cheaply in the required colours. Independent schools generally opt for unusual colour combinations in hues only produced in small quantities. Thus the materials are more expensive to buy. The clothes are cut to one pattern and the children they are modelled on are yet to be seen, being apparently square with short bodies and attenuated limbs. Slightly-built children can move around inside their clothes easily, much like a hamster in its skin. There is often only one supplier for a school so there is no competition for custom and prices are extortionate for workmanship that is seldom good – seams split, buttons fall off, hems drop down, colours fade. Frequently the sales staff are condescending and unhelpful.
Because of the expense parents sometimes buy uniforms 'to last' so unfortunate small children can be observed struggling uncomfortably to walk in their over-sized blazers, thickly turned-up trousers or ankle-length skirts and tunics. By the time they have 'grown into' them their school clothes look decidedly shabby. Some schools run 'thrift shops' periodically where outgrown but not worn out items can be purchased for a fraction of the price of new.
I don't know who designs school uniforms but they should be shot – or at least invited to assist at any lessons where small children have to divest themselves of their clothes in order to don special kit for the ensuing session and then repeat the procedure in reverse after the period is over. Undressing is perhaps not quite as difficult as dressing. Buttons are awkward, zips are easier unless in a side seam over the ribs, tunics or gym slips are struggled over heads, threatening to suffocate children in the process. Elasticated ties are easier than traditional ties though not without their hazards while socks, tights and vests are stripped off easily, ending up inside out on the floor, which presents a particular problem in a wet swimming pool changing room.
Having undressed the children have to put on special clothes for their activity lesson. This may involve leotards for the girls with all sorts of possible methods of wearing – legs through sleeves, back-to-front, two legs in one leg hole. Shorts and tee shirts can also go on upside down. A PE lesson with small children may consist entirely of undressing and dressing with no perceivable physical benefit but a lot of frustration for infants and teachers.
When the time comes to step out of games kit and back into everyday wear the fun really starts, particularly at the swimming pool. Some children attempt to dress without first having dried themselves thoroughly so that shirts and blouses, often inside out and upside down, stick unrelentingly to small damp bodies, socks refuse to pass the toes, jumpers grow too tight and other clothes twist uncomfortably. Who knew that underpants and knickers could be so difficult? Watch a small child tussle with them and then sympathise when she realises the waist aperture is round one leg and the leg hole is too small for her waist. Others take an age to dry every inch of themselves and then proceed agonisingly slowly to put on their clothes. A 'no talking' rule is essential since small children cannot talk and dress simultaneously. At least one child will lose his own clothes and may appropriate someone else's. It is not at all uncommon to discover odd socks, a vest, knickers unclaimed after everyone is apparently fully clothed. Some children may be found to be wearing three or more socks while the clothes that have dropped onto the floor are too wet to be put on and have to be hung on radiators or window sills to dry out.
Adults wish to encourage children to become independent and children enjoy doing things for themselves and while there is little that can be done to make undergarments easier there are many ways in which uniforms can be made more child-friendly. Pull-on clothing in lightweight, breathable materials can be smart and comfortable. One state school in which I taught had a fairly simple uniform but the children were assigned to 'houses' and wore waterproof smocks over their clothes in the colour of their team. Certainly the smocks kept the clothes clean but they were an unnecessary layer in warm weather and rustled constantly. I was not popular when I allowed the children to stop wearing them.
Shoe manufacturers have already provided alternatives to laces and buckles with Velcro strips. It's time for the uniform providers to consider alternatives to the traditional styles and fastenings of clothes.
Of course, some schools revere tradition and steadfastly refuse to move forward. I suspect the Board of Governors of such schools are really the individuals who consider only the look of the uniform and never think about children's comfort.
My six-year-old grandson has to wear short trousers and a striped blazer with a handkerchief in the breast pocket. The boys are met at the door by the head teacher to shake hands and the salutation is, 'Where's your hand?', a somewhat aggressive greeting, I feel. Parents are almost physically barred from entering the school to talk to class teachers so they find alternative entrances. I'm almost willing to bet they have to wear straw boaters in the summer! As the children approach the school door they can be heard anxiously asking, 'Is my handkerchief straight?' Poor little souls – they are still relatively new arrivals on this earth and they are expected to dress and behave like civil servants in the City. Isn't there enough in their lives for them to worry about – things like remembering games kit, thinking about reading and number work, not to mention friends. Really – what nonsense – such attitudes belong in the 1920s.
My eight-year-old granddaughter is attending a girls' school and is finding the sheer bitchiness of some of her peers hard to take. She will survive, of course – she's a strong character, but she and her little brother are finding it hard to adjust from their friendly co-educational school in New York City (BISNY) At the end of the day the headmistress bids them good day and they curtsey to her!! Very sweet if a little old-fashioned – after all, there are no Debutantes presented to the Queen these days, and in any case a curtsey is quickly learned.
Elliot, their elder brother, is very happy in his co-educational school. The children are welcoming and he has made many friends quickly. So, how can we define good manners? Surely they are a means of ensuring that the people with whom you are dealing are put at their ease and allowed to discourse and interact freely. I think Charles Kingsley expressed it well in two of the characters he created in 'The Water Babies' – Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid and Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby.