A lifetime ago, before irate parents could call their favourite radio stations at the drop of a hat (more on this later) I worked as a Kindergarten Assistant.
Even back then, some of the children mocked their peers because whereas they “had a wardrobe bursting at the seams”, the latter “always wore the same clothes”.
Then came the decision that children, even at pre-school age, would wear uniforms. Ironically, the parents of the Clothes Show gang were the first ones to call the radio stations to complain about the “extra expense” they were going to be put through.
Alas, for some of them, the real reason was that their perfect little angels would not be able to preen any longer because they would look “the same as the others” as one of them succinctly put it in a rant outside the school gates. “Children are individuals!” she said “so why are they being treated as if they were in the Army? If they don’t wear their nice clothes to school, when can they wear them?”
Many people would remember the story with references to the Young Pioneer Movement, which has hitherto free-spirited children having to wear a uniform (like that of their teacher) and being given sweets sent by the “Great Leader” – after prayers to God delivered nothing.
The reason that I do not like uniforms is that most of them they tend to be drab… and some of them are also ugly, itchy, and badly-designed… such as summer shirts for girls that are so flimsy that a waistcoat made from the same fabric as the skirt, guaranteed to keep the heat in, has to be worn.
Or how about socks in school colours that do not have turned-over tops, such that they slide down the legs as the child walks?
There are schools that go for distinctive, expensive uniforms as a touch of class. For reasons of their own, they even forbid parents who are excellent seamstresses to sew their children’s’ blazers.
For others, the reason is more practical. It is much easier to do a headcount of children wearing a bright yellow polo-shirt during a school outing, than it would be had they been wearing white shirts…exactly like those of four other schools in the same place on a school outing.
Many children who watch television shows depicting foreign schools complain that their peers in the equivalent of Saved By the Bell, Fame, Beverly Hills 90210, Smallville and The O.C. can get away with, literally, everything. Making a uniform mandatory would probably make the series less interesting, since the clothing of the students in these shows reflects their characters, anyway.
They fail to realise that what is depicted on the screen is not ”the truth” – surely no self-respecting head of School would allow bare midriffs, spaghetti straps and painted-on cycling shorts, or other provocative clothing.
This is not a case of a Head of School ripping loose hems of skirts that are too short, or making students go to the toilets to remove tights worn underneath knee-socks to fight the cold if they were not “exactly” flesh-coloured.
Wearing a uniform is part of the praxis of religious orders, the armed forces, and other groups that want to present a depiction of “organisation” and “discipline” to the world. This is only a part of what school uniforms represent, however.
Some of us resent the fact that uniforms may only be bought from selected outlets or from the schools themselves – especially if they are not made of good-quality fabric and the only thing differentiating them from non-branded items is s logo that is sometimes just sewn on.
And yet, they solve the perennial what-shall-I-wear today problem, as well as indicating that a child is a part of a group with an innate sense of decorum and order.
It is a moot point whether a fail-safe dress code – no branded clothing, no jeans, no tracksuits, no visible cleavage, no stretch fabrics, covered shoulders, shorts up to the knees, no slogans of any kind (even religious ones) on t-shirts or sweater, no hoodies, no low-waisted trousers that expose underwear – would work.
It goes without saying that make-up, jewellery and piercings and non-sensible shoes will be forbidden, too.
There will always be that difference in how many different items of a type one has, and what quality they are, and whether they are new or obviously hand-me-downs. And there will always be students who assume that fashion shows and beauty contests are part and parcel of the educational system.
Ironically schools that boast they are progressive are all to ready allow children not to wear uniforms, just to prove their point, whereas the Malta Union of Teachers, in a memorandum to the political parties, has actually asked whether it is time to abolish them.
And then we have those who believe that the very wearing of a uniform is conducive to learning, because “a child in casual clothes is not in the right frame of mind to learn”. It is one less thing to worry about for school administrations. Alas, however, a uniform will not stop bullying.
One assumes that by the time the child is in tertiary education, his mind-set will be different.
At least, one hopes it will.