Uniform variations

It's 8.37 A.M. You're rummaging in the fridge for ham that's not past its sell-by date to fill a roll, feeding the dog and ferreting…

It's 8.37 A.M. You're rummaging in the fridge for ham that's not past its sell-by date to fill a roll, feeding the dog and ferreting in your purse for somebody's train fare when suddenly a wail goes up.

"Who stole my hairband?!" Your seven-year-old is frantic, hurling abuse at the toddler, accusing the dog, you, anybody because she can't find a black hairband for her ponytail. You proffer a red one, only to be met with the wail, "We're not allowed!" A mini-row develops as the clocks ticks threateningly towards school opening time: you're muttering about how you don't really believe the school has a hairband patrol; she, by now tearfully, is howling that it does and if she gets into trouble it will be all your fault.

It isn't until you have written a note explaining how it is all your fault that she submits to wearing the offending red item and you can make the last-minute dash to beat the school bell.

And as you resolve to go out and buy a gross of black hairbands that won't run out until little Granuaile is clutching her 590-point Leaving Cert (the reward, surely, for sending her to such a well-disciplined school) you wonder: is life not too short for this?


Most parents believe in school uniforms, says Fionnuala Kilfeather of the National Parents Council, for all the obvious reasons: avoiding rows every morning over what clothes to wear; the pressure otherwise to buy designer clothes; the cost of having to provide a varied wardrobe.

However, quite a few parents would part company with schools that promote the uniform policy over-zealously: schools which hassle children because they have the wrong colour socks or hairband, which won't let them play sports because they've forgotten some regulation item, which get too confrontational over jewellery and hair.

Another gripe is schools which make random changes to already-expensive uniforms for no apparent reason: a sudden change in PE gear or tunic or blazers or jumpers will inevitably add to the expense of outfitting a child for school, and make it impossible to sell it or hand it down. (The average cost of a full private school uniform of the sort you find in Arnotts can be as high as £400, so this is not to be sneezed at.)

Sometimes it seems schools operate a kind of zero-tolerance policy on uniforms, perhaps on the assumption that if pupils are made to toe the line rigidly on this matter, the bigger issues will take care of themselves.

But Dr Mona O'Moore, who lectures student teachers in educational psychology, believes that there should be room for flexibility and tolerance on uniforms - and agrees with Fionnuala Kilfeather that schools should consult parents and pupils when deciding policy.

"You won't get the resentment and anger that you will if you're too rigid, or play into the hands of children who love to rebel. Schools could insist that children wear the main uniform, but not worry whether their shoes are brown or black."

O'Moore, who is also an expert on bullying, thinks schools which go for the full rig-out might consider being flexible on the matter of something like coats, which immediately identify a student as being from a particular school. This can be hazardous in an environment where kids can be vulnerable to being hassled by pupils from other schools. Just because there's a consensus that uniforms are a good thing doesn't mean there's agreement on detail. According to Kilfeather, "some parents will wonder if it is sensible to have four-year-olds in ties and shirts. Others would ask whether there's a gender issue around girls' uniforms, and whether they can make it difficult for girls to be as physically active as boys.

" What is important is that schools don't make loads of petty regulations; you can't be hassling kids over everything."

Kilfeather advises any parent whose child is uptight over something like the hairband patrol to go and talk to the child's teacher and/or the parents' council. Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Co Dublin, is a liberal school that keep its uniform to the bare minimum of a school jumper that must be worn by first, second and third year pupils. Principal Derek West says the school is strict about this and also reacts to students who try to wear outrageous clothes.

However, while pupils are fashion conscious, he doesn't think that they vie with each other too much over designer gear. His attitude to heavily policed uniform policies is, simply, "Life is too short."

Ireland may be stuck in a timewarp on the uniform issue - many schools in North America and across Europe have long abandoned them. (Although perhaps not Australia, if the hideous check garments glimpsed on soaps from down under are to be believed.)

All the same, though, many parents in those countries regret that this is the case, says O'Moore, who originally hails from Norway. She doesn't believe the conformity imposed by uniforms is damaging, since pupils have plenty of opportunity to express their individuality on afternoons and weekends.

And after all, it can be useful training for the adult world of work, where unofficial uniforms, at the minimum, are usually the order of the day. At the least, it will certainly train them for work in our chain stores - Dunnes Stores employees' handbook reads very like a convent school guide to good dressing.