Why do schools insist we kit out our children like miniature adults from the 1950s?

Opinion: Let’s put our children’s comfort first. Or is that too radical?

‘By the time they start school, most kids can dress themselves in their normal clothes. But lay out a school uniform and immediately they regress to needing a parent’s help.’  Photograph : Matt Kavanagh / THE IRISH TIMES

‘By the time they start school, most kids can dress themselves in their normal clothes. But lay out a school uniform and immediately they regress to needing a parent’s help.’ Photograph : Matt Kavanagh / THE IRISH TIMES

Wed, Sep 3, 2014, 12:01

This week schoolchildren are back at their desks, most of them wearing uniforms that once again sparked lots of grousing. Too bad the public debate focused only on the expense.

Barnardos put the cost of an average uniform at €95 for a junior infant and €275 for a child entering secondary school. The Competition Authority tried to bring prices down for parents at one Dublin school by insisting that no one business could monopolise supply. The Arklow branch of the Money and Budgeting Advice Service predicts that demand for its help will peak this month.

However, the drawbacks of the typical school uniform go beyond its high cost. Specifically, they’re nasty, impractical and make family life more difficult. And the ones with no say in the debate are the youngsters who have to function in these hideous garments.

Why do schools insist we kit out our kids like miniature adults from the 1950s? Uniforms vary in their silliness, but typically include shirt-and-tie ensembles for both boys and girls, pullovers or cardigans, and trousers or skirts. In other words, lots of tiny, fiddly buttons to defeat little fingers; a tight, stiff collar to chafe against the tender skin of the neck; and tights that can’t be put on by a small girl without Mammy’s help, or pulled up and down during the day – which rules out certain natural functions.

Awkward, uncomfortable and plain weird; such are the day-to-day outfits inflicted on schoolchildren from the age of four. There are no concessions for little ones who also face umpteen other challenges, such as sitting still for long stretches or waiting until breaktime for a drink of water.

Unpopular policies

Last year then-Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn asked schools to ballot parents about uniforms, so that unpopular policies could be changed by this school year. But because the ballot was voluntary, the department doesn’t know how many schools followed the suggestion or made changes.

I “get” school uniforms. They emphasise pupils are part of a group, and in theory spare some from being labelled fashion victims. They help teachers keep track of students on group outings. In the village where my daughter attends secondary school, uniforms make mitchers conspicuous.

So, uniforms are fine. It’s the typical school uniform that I despise: youngsters in ties and button-down shirts, baking under horribly scratchy pullovers? Why? Who in normal life wears clothes like this, other than that busybody Norris on Coronation Street? Maybe, back in the Celtic mists, this was the rig-out worn by the professional men who swaggered amid the grovelling peasants – the fellows with nice desk jobs in the bank or civil service. Today, my kids’ dad has a nice desk job, and he wears a tie to funerals and weddings. And certainly never under a jumper.

Worse, some of the bits and pieces come only in manmade fabrics, which means they’re scratchy, staticky and prevent skin from breathing properly. On girls, they provide the perfect breeding ground for urinary tract infections and yeast infections. My own schooldays were made miserable by an itchy rash brought on by such cloth – yet, for my own children, I’ve yet to find school skirts, pinafores or trousers made of natural fibres.

Normal clothes

By the time they start school, most kids can dress themselves in their normal clothes. But lay out a school uniform and immediately they regress to needing a parent’s help. The mission of schools should be to guide children toward becoming more independent in everyday tasks, not less so.

As a junior, one of my children couldn’t satisfy Teacher’s demand that all kids tuck their shirts neatly into waistbands after using the loo.

Solution? Stop visiting the loo, with yukky health consequences. Secondary school students have obviously mastered the mechanics, but that’s not to say their uniforms are sensible.

Unbelievably, some secondaries still ban girls from wearing trousers.

Movie icon Katharine Hepburn once aroused the suspicion of middle America by donning trousers – in the 1930s. Why are schools still peddling such outdated attitudes in 2014? Some secondaries demand skirts that almost reach the girls’ ankles. They’d get the thumbs-up from the Taliban.

A neighbour told me her daughter is forced to wear tights under her mandatory skirt despite suffering recurrent yeast infections. Whatever the philosophy behind that rule, it’s not one that values a child’s health or comfort.

Both national and secondary schools wage long, futile, pointless wars against kids wearing trainers except in PE class. But I’ve been told by a podiatrist that trainers are the perfect shoes because they’re roomy, secure on the foot and have a sole that absorbs shocks. None of which makes them appropriate for school wear, apparently.

The pity of it is, schoolchildren already have uniforms that are practical, comfortable and easily managed by even juniors: their PE kit, which typically consists of track suit, polo shirt and trainers.

If some kids prefer old-fashioned pinnies or ties, let them wear them. But those who long to move about easily, use the loo when needed, or relax so they can concentrate on lessons, should be given the option of wearing their PE kit day in, day out. Let’s put our children’s comfort first. Or is that too radical?

Vincent Browne will not be resuming his weekly column for The Irish Times because of a need to cut back on his work commitments.

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