Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Is the pursuit of uniformity in schools stifling kids' creativity?

I have been a lifelong supporter of the school uniform, and considering how I've veered between political/newspaper/ rock'n'roll allegiances, that's a stand-out record.

But with my two children at primary school now, I'm beginning to wonder if I've been wrong for a long time.

The reasons in favour of the uniform are obvious and, for a committed egalitarian, feel almost holy.

The uniform diminishes the chances of poorer kids being mocked because their parents can't afford the latest trainers or have tried to pass off George at Asda for Topshop.

It makes it less likely that children come to school wearing outfits aimed primarily at seducing the opposite sex.

And it ensures that the ugly values of the sycophantic, materialistic, anti-intellectual fashion jungle do not slip into education.

These are strong arguments, so much so that even in America - where high schools have long been style-obsessed, clique-addled microcosms of adult society - a number of states are now raising the question of whether a school uniform should be considered.

Perhaps, they suggest, playgrounds which serve as mini-versions of America's Next Top Model aren't providing the most desirable pathway to adulthood after all.

I certainly don't argue with that. But my heart simply sinks when I watch my rosy-cheeked four-year-old son, who used to take such pleasure in choosing his nursery clothes in order to pledge his allegiance to Spiderman, pulling on a collar and tie every day.

And I'm starting to wonder - what about those formative early years, before style and class warfare really becomes an issue; do we really need school uniforms in primary schools?

Already I've noticed that my son is being 'brought round' to the benefits of conformity and institutionalisation, not just by repeated mantras about why he and his little friends should wear exactly the same clothes (his friend was chastised in public for forgetting his tie the day a class photograph was being taken) but by a number of other means whereby schools reward compliance and punish self-expression and individuality.

On his first day he wanted to draw a dinosaur but was told he had to draw a house 'like everyone else'. He had chosen a school bag on wheels, rather than a rucksack, but was told on day two it would be better if he could change it to a bag more like 'the kind everyone else has.'

I understand that trying to calm and educate a large group of wilful kids is hard, and a degree of enforced submission in the classroom is necessary.

But I think some schools believe they should also 'encourage' certain personalities, often at the cost of stifling creativity - maybe for an easy life, maybe because they enjoy the taste of power.

In just the last few weeks we've heard the story of a girl who was sent home for wearing a knee-length skirt in a Bristol school which now only allows trousers, and an 11-year-old boy in Bolton who was taken out of class because his tiny ponytail 'breached the strict uniform code'.

Both great examples of the kind of pointless megalomania some institutions display.

Newspaper guru Max Hastings once told me: "I feel sorry for the people who were terrific successes in school. They shone because they were conformists. Most of life's real successes tend not to do what they're told." At the time I thought those were the bitter remarks of a bad student. Now I think they were some of the wisest words I've ever heard.

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