School uniforms – good or bad? Either way, the system makes us suffer | Zoe Williams

28 Feb.,2023


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School uniform becomes a hot-button issue at this time of year, for obvious reasons: half the country is bankrupted by it, and the other half wonders why they have to dress their kids up like pretend executives on polyester wages, and there’s a fierce debate on Mumsnet about whether it’s bad for equality (so expensive), or good (at least you don’t have to buy other clothes). Then they’ll get distracted and never resolve the issue. I don’t think it can be resolved – it’s an empty signifier. Whether uniformed or not, inequality between children will persist for as long as inequality between adults does, and sure, send them to school naked in an awareness-raising exercise, but; don’t kid yourself that this is the solution or even the beginning of one.

Even if you can’t get aerated about uniform, you still have to buy it. The system for purchasing it is abstruse, and it is stacked against you, and there is no gaming it, and sometimes I think the people who don’t know there is one are happier in the long run. In my local uniform shop, there are three queues: an orderly, short one, for the people who have an appointment; a longer one full of anguish, for the people who arrived late for their appointment; and a wild, tumultuous one, like the last airlift out of a war zone, for the people who didn’t realise you needed one. There is zero solidarity between the queues, which is a shame, because once you get inside, you’re really going to need it.

The big-ticket items (blazers) are too high to reach, so you have to be helped by a guy with a ladder, except there are 50 of you, three of him and one ladder. The walls are festooned with “polite notices” telling you not to abuse the staff, and while I am broadly on board with not abusing people, if it happens enough that you need signs, maybe you don’t have enough staff. Or ladders.

The kids about to start at big school arrive full of excitement – hell, maybe they’ll get a new calculator on top of all the other new stuff – and you see the innocence drain from their faces as they realise: people are mean. If grownups are this mean, what are year 10s going to be like?

Do it online, is all I’m saying. If only I would tell that to myself.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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