The year I started secondary school, they brought in a new blazer. It was a horrid itchy green wool thing and I definitely didn’t want to wear it. Luckily for me, we couldn’t afford to buy a new blazer and so I got to wear my sister’s old blue one. (This was an ILEA school so if you had a good enough reason, you got to make the excuse.) You might think I would have been embarrassed at being in a different coloured blazer to everyone else, but I wore it like a badge of honour. Everyone wanted to get past the uniform rules: that was the cool thing to do. We used to tuck our jumpers into our skirts, and customise our school bags. We had these soft blue satchels, with buckles, which were perfect for the job. My sister was more artistic than me and her satchel was beautifully decorated with symbols done in felt tip. CND. Yin and Yang. Love hearts. She had the lot. I had a friend who wore odd coloured socks and another who had a bright red scarf. We didn’t want to do the adult version of school uniform; we wanted to create a sub-uniform of our own.
At preschool we have a uniform, but no one has to wear it. The staff chose to wear polo shirts and fleeces with the preschool name on, to create a kind of team identity. But it definitely wasn’t a decision imposed from the top – they just asked if they could. We have cute little red polo shirts and sweatshirts that the children can wear if they want to. Some parents go down the uniform route while others don’t. I suppose, in a tiny way, the uniform is part of our preschool ‘brand’. It helps to symbolise what you can expect from us. But it is comfy, practical and optional. We don’t exist to make a profit, so we don’t need to spread any brand beyond our local area. We do what we do for local children – we don’t want to set up a franchise. The schools that our kids go to have sensible, practical uniforms too, and these are sensitively policed. The point isn’t uniform; the point is learning.
As the idea of ‘competition’ spreads through the education sector, there has been an increase in the use of school branding. The rise of academy chains makes it the logical outcome. In a supposedly ‘free’ market, if you want kids, you have to attract parents, and so you create a ‘brand’. If you want to franchise out your brand, you add a logo and then you market your offer through the media. But it’s at this point that strict uniform policies begin to have two sets of meanings. And it’s at this point that I wonder what happened to the idea of a good local school for all. (Because no, there isn’t such a thing as parental choice.) If a school insists on an expensive uniform that has the school logo everywhere, then it is asking parents and kids to pay to market its product. If compliance with a uniform policy is about sending a brand message of rigour, rather than about community and consistency, then it takes on a different tone. I don’t want to pay for the privilege of advertising someone else’s product; I don’t want my kids to learn to comply by wearing a brand name on their trousers. Creativity or conformity? Well, I know which one I’d go for. Customising your school bag is definitely due a return.