“The school uniform debate is the strange red sock of the news cycle”

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The Irish news cycle makes my head spin, especially when it comes to education.

The same worn-out subjects circle my eardrums at the same time every year. Identical points are raised, with the usual downfall of objections. Then we happily forget about it – until it resurfaces the following year.

Rinse. Twirl. Repeat.

This is especially true when it comes to the subject of school uniforms. The cost of a uniform debate is like the strange red sock of the education news cycle. He bleeds in every conversation but never changes. And it’s boring.

So, this is the one and only time I’m going to talk about uniforms in my column.

I’m the first to criticize the Ministry of Education for its hands-off approach, but when it comes to uniforms, they couldn’t be clearer. Below is a flyer from 2017. Five years ago. Please read it carefully and bring it with you to your school. Bring it to your management board. Bring it to your parent council. Demand a policy change. So that we can all move forward.

School authorities should adopt the following principles of cost-effective practices that will place greater emphasis on reducing the cost of school uniforms and other costs:

  • (a) All elements of a school uniform should be purchasable in various stores;
  • (b) Only “iron-on” or “sewn” patches may be used;
  • (c) Where possible, generic items rather than branded items should be specified;
  • (d) Provide parents with a list of all required items and indicate the likely costs of such required items from stores offering the best value for money;
  • (e) Provide a book rental system;
  • (f) Phase out, by September 2018, the use of notebooks that cannot be reused;
  • g) When an exclusive supply regime applies, it must be the subject of regular calls for tenders.

Barnardos’ Back to School 2022 survey concludes that “the majority of parents are worried about coping with the costs of back to school this year and most will find it more difficult due to recent increases in the cost of living”.

Their first observation is truly astounding: the basic cost of sending a child to school in 2022 remains high in primary and secondary education: the average cost of the basics needed for a fourth-grade pupil is €424; a first-year student is €814 and a fifth-year student is €722.

We are allowing this to happen by not demanding change from school governing boards.

The families I speak to tell me they’ve gone to spend around $200 on each of their children’s uniforms, including school-specific outdoor coats at $65 a pop. They report that their children can be detained for not having worn the said coat for the benefit of a “civilian”.

Wearing your own coat outside on the way to a given destination should never be a punishable act.

A school in Cork states that if generic clothing is worn by a pupil, “a note must be provided explaining the reason why they cannot wear the official school tracksuit top or bottom and this note must be signed by the class teacher. What’s going on? Seriously!

I really don’t care if people think uniforms are a good idea. If a school has a uniform, there is no reason to ban generic items with iron-on patches, generic coats, and generic shoes of any color. Traditional single brand uniforms are outdated and unaffordable and should be phased out, allowing existing clothing to be passed on to younger siblings. A school-specific t-shirt, for example, costs around €15. A cheaper ethically sourced option is certainly available.

The world has changed since my mother had to buy me a vest and a coat with sleeves so that I could even walk through the door of my secondary school. Schools must reflect this societal and cultural change. Few workers now dress formally; designer school coats and blazers are anachronistic.

Uniforms are perfectly fine up to a point. This point ends if they aren’t cheap, comfortable, genderless, and easy to find.

And one last thing. Most schools also require “natural” hair color. Well, I’m 42 and every three months or so I dye my roots. Do I have to register with all Irish school boards? Well, I’ll take a lot of my colleagues with me.

I’m telling you that the moment I hear the subject of the uniform kick off in August 2023, I leave the room or turn on a bit of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye.

“Who are they to judge us just because our hair is long.” Only his kind of honey-toned wisdom and class can stifle such a twist.

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