London girls in school uniform June 2007. In the earliest times schoolchildren were free of school child uniforms yet still dressed uniformly.
In the early 16th century charity school pupils were given second-hand clothes, in 1552 the Christ’s Hospital charity issued a obligatory uniform to its scholars, It was designed to emphasise the low status of the children, and was based on the clerical cassock and was russet in colour, but was changed after one year to be blue. Other children were not so lucky, village children might get a basic education in reading, writing and reckoning courtesy of their parish church school. Others in the new industrial towns, attended Sunday Schools in addition to working full time. Stockport Sunday School was the largest, the teachers were in the main volunteers and attendance was voluntary. There was no uniform, children attended in their only clothes.
The appearance of a uniform at most schools was slow to develop, and was rare before the beginning of the 19th century. It was influenced by the appearance of uniforms in civilian professions and trades, the growing sobriety of men’s fashions, and the emergence of sportswear. The century opened with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 which attempted to ensure children were instructed in reading, writing and religion but it was not effectively policed. Boys continued to wear their own clothes. Around 1820, the elite public schools formalised their dress code standardising on what upper class children would have already been wearing. Other public schools had their own interpretations.
In 1870, the Elementary Education Act 1870 made elementary education available for all children in England and Wales. Throughout the century girls generally did not wear a uniform. As schools started teaching girls team sports, gymnastics and callisthenics a functional kit evolved. Throughout the Edwardian era, in the private and grammar schools the established uniform of knickerbockers, Norfolk or lounge jacket, white shirt with Eton collar and bow tie or knotted tie held sway. After the First World War, the old-fashioned knickerbockers gave way to shorts for younger boys, and black stockings and boots were superseded by socks and shoes. Elementary-school girls under 14, wore dresses that followed fashionable lines, the loose calf-length smock frocks of the 1890s and early 1900s, protected beneath a white or coloured pinafore, became shorter shift-style dresses during the 1920s. A typical 1950 girl’s school uniform.
The gymslip was originally worn for gymnastics and sports. It developed into a major element of female school uniform by the 1920s, worn with a blouse and tie: in some schools this arrangement continued into the 1960s. By the 1960s two parallel debates on the virtue of school uniform had opened up. Schools issued parents and potential parents with an equipment list, including many school specific designs. They specified which department stores had agreed to be stockists.
In the 1920- 1950, families would travel across the country, to London or Manchester on a specific shopping trip. From the late 1950s the use of exclusive uniform has been confined to a few garments. There will still be the expensive blazers but they will be worn with Marks and Spencers trousers. The pre-war woollen blazer has been replaced by one in polyester. Parents say that wearing a uniform helps all children to fit into a school. The school uniform manufacturer, Trutex commissioned research in 2017 that shows school uniforms stopped bullying.
However there is no reliable research showing that uniform improves the academic results of a school. Uniform is a method of social control. It was unusual even then to be a state school without a uniform, but we felt we were spending far too much time addressing issues of non-compliance. Too many conversations with students were about tucking shirts in. We were desperate to focus on the important issues of teaching and learning. They were reintroduced following parental pressure in 2012, with the inevitable protests. When a government or head teacher feels under pressure about educational standards they advocate reintroduction of 1950s school uniforms.
Every time a school is converted into an academy, the trust engages in a rebranding exercise that involves a change in school uniform. In 2017 sixty-seven percent of parents were in favour of a compulsory school uniform. Uniform is not always popular, and an inflexible approach can lead to protests. In 2017 during a heat wave, boys at the Isca Academy wore skirts in protest at not being allowed to wear shorts. A study in 2007 found that secondary schools were more likely than primary schools to define compulsory items of clothing. A lot of primary school uniform items are either optional or not considered part of the school uniform at all.
The number of compulsory uniform items and the proportion of schools requiring them are greater for secondary than for primary schools. By means of a survey of over 1100 participants, the average cost of each item of ‘required’ school clothing was calculated. A single average figure has little statistical meaning, but taken as a whole this is a large sum of money for a many families, and of course is cummulative. Several government departments are monitoring the situation, Social Services from the point of view of large families poverty and the Office for Fair Trading who sees the uniform suppliers and schools operating an unfair monopoly. A comparative survey was done in 2015, and this reveals what it costs to kit up a primary child, and a secondary child with respect to items only available at a named supplier.