The long and the short of school uniforms

Last week a school in Kent gained national headlines for sending home girls whose skirts were deemed as too short.

Uniform stories are not rare. Most weeks at least one will surface in a local rag. If the subject is outlandish enough, the national press will also pile in.

Headteachers will defend their right to set and enforce uniforms. Parents will muse about the frivolity of the rules. Commentators will provide sensible points about equality and the lower costs, and less sensible ones about the distraction of boys when girls flash their knees.

In a distant time, however, uniform-related exclusions happened for another reason. In fact, uniform was one of the main barriers to the development of universal education in the 1800s.

A parliamentary inquiry completed between 1816 and 1818, “Education of the lower orders”, found that more than 2,000 children in the London borough of Southwark were unable to attend school simply because they did not have the correct clothing.

“In one family, consisting of six children, there was only one suit of clothes, which each child was obliged alternately to use when he went into the street,” documents from the inquiry show.

The inquiry heard from William Freeman Lloyd, secretary of the Sunday School Union, who said he had seen “an amazing number” of children kept out of school because of their lack of uniform.

By the 1830s, concern was so great that “penny clothing” societies allowed families to rent clothing or to get significant discounts – a sort of Bright House for clothes, if you will. Discounts also extended to shoes, which were particularly difficult to come by.

Evidence given to the “State of Education” inquiry held by parliament in 1834 states: “They subscribe a penny or two pence a week, and are allowed to have shoes at one-half or a third less than their cost.”

Stealing a trend started in the 1500s for charitable schools to give standardised long blue coats to orphaned and poor children, uniforms proved a good way of ensuring clothes could be cheaply given to those most in need. By requiring everyone to wear the same outfits, the poorest were not marked out.

A 1960s uniform list for Scorton grammar in Preston included a “reindeer green belted mackintosh”, with shorts

The standard blazer, shirt, tie and skirt/trouser combo of today’s schools is, however, a relatively modern concept. Shorts and flat caps were common in the first half of the 20th century, with grey flannel trousers also standard.

The BBC reports that a uniform list for Scorton grammar in Preston, dating from the 1960s, now held by the British Schools Museum, included a “reindeer green belted mackintosh”, with shorts, until a pupil’s 15th birthday. How stylish!

From the 1970s until the early 2000s many schools experimented with looser uniforms, often changing ironed shirts for polo shirts, or allowing pupils to select from within a number of branded items – such as sweatshirts and leggings – rather than the traditional suit.

The appointment of Michael Gove as education secretary in 2010 prompted a turnaround in thinking after he advocated the return of blazers and ties.

In February 2012 he even went on local radio in Devon and slammed King Edward VI community college for its policy of allowing pupils to wear what they wanted.

A consultation followed with pupils. Turned out they wanted a uniform; the school’s website now shows children wearing matched outfits.

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