Belfast Telegraph

School uniform row: Why this headmistress is one who deserves a real dressing-down

By Jane Graham

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination ... What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture ... Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society'.

This is an abridged paragraph from a 1962 novel, celebrated as a bible of alternative free-thinking and lauded as a breakthrough text in the consideration of Stalinism, Communism, the burgeoning of feminism and psychological breakdown - Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.

Lessing knew a thing or two about repression and conformity - she was born in Iran, grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), was educated in an all-girls convent, and became a young member of the Communist Party.

She also knew about challenging repression and conformity - she left school to educate herself at 14, campaigned against apartheid, abandoned the Communist Party, divorced twice, and declined both the OBE and a Damehood. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

I wonder what Elizabeth Churton, the headmistress of Bradford's Hanson Academy, which sent home 152 children on Tuesday, and more throughout the week, for not wearing the correct uniform might think of Lessing's assessment. Perhaps that the Nobel winner was a creepy oddball, or a dangerous radical. She certainly wouldn't feel that daft old Doris was a good influence in her pledge to "prepare children for adult life" by barring them from days of education for not wearing real leather black shoes with laces.

For me, Churton exemplifies everything that's wrong - lazy, monomaniacal - about British schools, much of it championed by another right-wing trainee totalitarian whose shadow still pervades, the ex-education minister Michael Gove.

Where there is an obsession with removing traces of potentially disruptive individualism by enforcing strict rules regarding instantly identifiable elements like clothes and hair (Hanson students must have "naturally coloured hair"), there is a weakness of faith in enlightenment. The former overrides, indeed replaces, the other.

It might look good in school photos in the local paper. It probably impresses councillors. But when Ms Churton was asked by the BBC what her insistence on real (expensive) leather shoes added to her students' learning experience, she ignored the question and delivered a platitude about the expectations of the adult world of work instead.

She's wrong about that, too. For one thing, creative kids may well never enter a workplace which makes sartorial demands.

I've worked in a number of offices including at the BBC, with no dress code.

Indeed, those with flamboyance and flair - the girl with the multi-coloured beehive, the boy with the beautifully teased Afro and yellow velvet suit - were admired and envied for their self-confidence and originality.

Also, school might be a precursor for work, but it shouldn't impose the same disciplines as the most frigid of boardrooms. It should grant children a degree of freedom and playfulness while they're still children, before the day-to-day grind that some of them will suffer kicks in. It makes me sad that Ms Churton has such low expectations of "adult life", and that she assumes all of her students will move on to buttoned-up, stifling environments fixated with uniformity.

The less of her kind of superior breeding, the better for our kids.

Nesbitt's drama hits the right note

There has been much discussion about the "appropriateness" of The Missing, the harrowing BBC drama with James Nesbitt playing the distraught father of a missing boy.

Some felt the premise was too close to the bone. Viewers emotions had been "exploited" and "manipulated". Um, well, yes, they were. That's what most serious art tries to do. What the consternation proves is that, unlike many other crime dramas (in which kids are regularly abducted), this one hit a nerve because it was brilliantly performed, well written and felt real. Are viewers now calling for drama to be a bit rubbish, so we're never convinced of a character's pain?

It's farewell then, dear Benedict

So after years of teasing us about his deep yearning for a good woman and his barely containable urge to be a father while flouncing around being the sexiest fictional detective on television since The Wire's Jimmy McNulty, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch made public his engagement this week in the only way a man of stock knows how; with a discreet announcement on page 57 of The Times.

Isn't it bizarre, that fleeting slump of heart when a man you'll never know but have daydreamed briefly about on the bus, puts an end to the possibility of your getting married and raising a family?

Ach, well.

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