From the headmistress’ desk: 14 June 2019

Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham, England has a uniform of breeches, knee socks and frock coats that dates back to 1556. The school claims that it is the oldest uniform in existence.

Dear parents

I was pleased to discover at a recent Heads’ breakfast that, come winter, I am not alone in dedicating sustained thought to the topic of uniform and tracksuits and that its introduction into conversation produces a strenuous response across a surprisingly diverse range of schools. I hesitate, even here, to devote space to something that can seem quite frivolous in relation to other more pressing subjects, but school uniform, as a point of discussion, does have this going for it: everyone has an opinion.

While few people at St Mary’s would argue against the wearing of uniform, many seem to favour a more permissive approach to what constitutes uniform and the combinations it allows. Others believe wholeheartedly in the improving effects of uniform on moral character and offer mostly anecdotal evidence to support the claim that uniforms boost student performance and create a school culture that fosters seriousness about learning. Researchers who have expended even more energy grappling with the phenomenon of uniforms than your average school head reach spectacularly inconclusive conclusions about the ability of uniform to foster a sense of belonging, to blur class lines and decrease peer pressure. The facts remain difficult to discern.

At St Mary’s, we agree, in principle, to wearing a uniform. Even the Grade 7 girls, who feel the injustice of every decision that comes between them and their desire to wear the non-compulsory grey hoodie, are affronted by the suggestion that we wear tracksuits daily in winter and reserve the uniform for special occasions only.

The issue that excites us as a community is best described as seasonal and relates to the perceived inadequacies of our winter uniform in response to colder temperatures. Again, the evidence that is offered in support of this claim is difficult to verify: some parents insist their children are cold in their uniform, but our observation of girls removing layers of clothing before break and choosing not to wear the school jersey, the thicker tights, gloves and scarves tells a different story. The girls’ choice of clothes for a civvies day in the depths of winter is equally instructive; similarly, outfit choices at Little Saints on any day provide food for thought. Children who present with sensory issues account for the unpopularity of certain items – the tights and Grade 0 polo necks spring to mind – while the general distaste for the long grey socks among the older girls, in particular, could justify a lively panel discussion of its own.

So where does this leave us? In the uncertain territory described by perception, half-truth and desire, which means that whatever approach we adopt to the wearing of our uniform will be the result of good-natured, value-based discussion and not a triumph of empirical fact over stubborn tradition that some imagine. School uniforms, by their very nature, are never simply about practicalities. I suggest, therefore, that we return to first principles: we have a school uniform, which will require adjustment over time. Prototypes of a long-sleeved polo shirt for the Grade 0s
and a warmer cardigan for the rest of the Junior school are already under review. The photograph on the first page is one in a series that will be posted on the app, another initiative to have emerged from ongoing conversation with our class representatives – conversation that draws on a shared willingness to make the school uniform work, instead of foregrounding the impulse to assert one’s own preferences. Please join the conversation.

Dr Sarah Warner
Junior School headmistress