9 January 2013

Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s

School Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s was less strict and more of a dress code than what is required today.

Aged ten in 1972, I can remember talking to friends in a classroom during my last year at Chestnut Avenue Junior School and being rather pleased at the idea of having to wear Woolmer Hill school uniform the following year. At that time, there was no school uniform at our junior school - though it was introduced soon after I left - and I hated being dressed in short trousers at my mother’s insistence. At Woolmer Hill the uniform prescribed long trousers. That made me happy.

When I started at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, my worry was not the obligation to wear the uniform, but a fear of standing out, or, worse still, getting into trouble, because some part of it was wrong. In the early summer of 1973 there was an induction meeting at Woolmer Hill for future pupils and their parents, at which my mother was handed a list of prescribed clothing. The requirements were clear and the only incomprehensible remark concerned the instructions about shoes, which were to be “not too pointed, please.” I had ordinary black lace-up shoes, so worried whether these would be deemed "too pointed," but the issue never arose.

The uniform for boys was the standard fare for secondary schools in the 1970s: dark coloured shoes, grey or black trousers and socks with a grey or black jumper and a white or grey shirt. In summary, providing it was dark and drab, it was acceptable; and in reality the uniform was more akin to a strict dress code. A further request, though on account of its cost one never made compulsory, was for a black blazer which carried the school emblem, a sinister design which featured a red cross flanked by an outline of two blue trees. Of its meaning or origin I know nothing, but it is still the emblem of the school today. And then for boys was the compulsory school tie, consisting of several bands of colours, including red, but was mostly of darker colours. The exact design I can no longer remember.

At no time did I ever feel pride in this uniform; wearing it was a fact of life, not a chosen form of identification. During my first two years at Woolmer Hill, I wore it all, including the blazer, without thinking about it or questioning it. What was there to question? Yes, it showed I was going to Woolmer Hill School, as indeed I was; it also granted me a degree of anonymity in the crowd of pupils and I was content with that, too. Nobody among us asked the question: why are we required to dress in uniform drabness? It was just accepted that we were.

Enforcement, to be fair, was erratic and usually light, if only because the uniform rule was accepted almost universally. No boy turned up in a pink jumper, not primarily because the rules existed and would be enforced against him, but because nobody wanted to do that. In the 1970s the easier way for boys to rebel in matters of appearance, if one wanted to, was to grow long hair.

Girls’ School Uniform

Although I didn’t think of it until my later years at Woolmer Hill, girls suffered more anxiety on account of school uniform than the boys. The girls’ uniform consisted of the same dark colours, except that they were not required to wear a tie, and until 1974 were forbidden to wear trousers. Jewellery and cosmetics were forbidden, and I imagine that rules existed and were periodically enforced about skirt lengths. Among most males clothing has a lower weight in constituting self-identity than it does among females. Thus the requirement to wear school uniform caused boys less anxiety than it did for girls. And that became apparent in issues of enforcement.

For the boys, the majority of infractions concerned not so much the item of clothing per se, but the manner in which it was worn: shirt buttons undone, the tails of shirts hanging loose or ties skew-wiff. None of these infractions resulted from anything other than pure laziness, so orders to rectify the situation caused little embarrassment. Girls, by contrast, often fell foul of the rules because they had made a conscious decision to present themselves in a particular way and their choice came under attack from the teachers who were enforcing the rules. One only had to see the face of a girl getting a public dressing down about her clothing and appearance to see the pain.

In my first year, two incidents occurred at Woolmer Hill, which had a profound effect on me, and both concerned girls’ clothing. The first took place in the morning assembly, at which rows of children daily sat on the floor as Headmaster Anning held forth over the assembled body. Two final year girls - and I remember for some reason that they were twins - were on the stage in front of us all. Anning was letting rip about some traces of makeup they had on. Of his diatribe I can remember nothing except his words of mockery and humiliation, “And don’t you look pretty now?” as at least one of the girls was reduced to tears, and, presumably, the makeup had started to run on her face. What struck me most was not only a personal feeling of fear at witnessing such cruelty, but the realisation that Anning’s behaviour was in my eyes illegitimate; and even at the age of eleven, I started to question the morality of his governance of the school. And as my respect for Anning started to ebb away, so a fundamental prop in the moral and ethical basis of Woolmer Hill School became dislodged in my head. My eleven year old sense of right and wrong, forced me to question the institution, first slightly at the edges and later more fundamentally, and has ended up four decades later with me writing this essay.

The second event did not shock so much as demonstrate that in the 1970s a small degree of power could shift away from Anning’s power structure to the the body of pupils. The winter of 1973-74 saw the coal miners on strike, energy shortages and a three-day week for many workers, though not for us school children. However, we were affected by reduced heating in the school. As a result of cold classrooms a movement of opinion developed among the final year pupils - I was then in my first year - that the temperature justified girls wearing trousers to school, and when this request was not granted a number of pupils marched out of school in protest.

At the time, I was unaware of what was happening, but a special assembly was called to check who had left school. Strangely, this meeting in the main hall was presided over not by Headmaster Anning but by his deputy, Mrs Hollingdale. The purpose of the meeting was not only to determine who the walkout protesters were, so they could be identified and perhaps punished, but to justify the decisions of school management. Hollingdale stressed in the assembly how extra heating had been provided in the domestic science (i.e. cooking) room, but the most interesting part of the meeting was an announcement that henceforth girls could wear grey trousers to school. It was that climbdown which was seemingly the reason that Mrs Hollingdale, rather than Headmaster Anning, had presided over the special assembly.

Throughout my time at Woolmer Hill School, I never witnessed again such a pupil-led, clear-sighted and concerted campaign for a reasonable progressive purpose, let alone one which was fully successful. Apparently, the protesters had made their way into the centre of Haslemere and there at a loss of what to do next had been directed to the Citizen's Advice Bureau in the Town Hall to talk to the elderly widow, Mrs Lowe, who managed the office. Yet that was enough to firmly take the issue out of the confines of the closed institutional setting of Woolmer Hill School, and it was also seemingly enough to win the campaign.

Questioning School Uniform

Gradually, as I progressed through the school into my fourth and fifth years, my teenage mind did start to question this enforcement of the uniform drabness, which was imposed upon our bodies. The argument that uniform promoted equality among pupils was clearly nonsense, as the types of materials of which our uniforms were made were relatively expensive, and therefore the children of richer parents stood out clearly. You might be in trouble with teachers because of the shade of colour of your jumper, but never because it was too worn or a little torn. Nor was the uniform practical: if you rolled in the dust and dirt - and as eleven year olds we did just that - blazers are not the best for daily cleaning in the washing machine.

So what then was the purpose of the uniform? It wasn’t functionally necessary, like walking on the right-hand side of corridors; the school would have operated just as well with pupils dressed in jeans and tee-shirts. The underlying reason was psychological, to institutionalise and regiment pupils into a drab conformity. Language and thinking were controlled in other ways in the school, but the physical body of the young person was neither chained nor drugged, but dressed in monochrome. The expression of identity through clothing was forbidden.

But by the mid-teenage years attitudes to school uniform became a barometer of more general attitudes to authority in school and indirectly to the systems of authority existing outside Woolmer Hill. Among pupils three approaches to the rules regarding the compulsory wearing of school uniform can be singled out: identification, rejection and manipulation.

At the beginning of my final year I remember a conversation with James P., a quiet boy with whom I rarely spoke. When I expressed the view that I didn’t see any reason for school uniform at all, he shot back with “”Ah, yes, but that would mean people coming to school in jeans.” In response to my retort of “So what?” he had no reply, but looked at me as if I had doubted that two and two made four. His was an extreme case: his parents had forbidden him watching Monty Python on the grounds that it gave children a distorted view of life, a restriction on his TV viewing rights which he related with pride. In other words, his family, with him in full compliance, seemed to think that life should be as it is: and even thinking about how it could be otherwise was undesirable.

If acceptance of school uniform was the norm, it did not mean that when there was an opportunity not to wear it, most pupils only grudgingly wore something else. When a temporary dispensation was announced, the majority attitude was akin to that of the loyal, rule-obeying office worker who lets his hair down at the Christmas office party, breaking every office taboo, only to return to the normal routines the following day.

One such dispensation was granted in my third year in the hot summer of 1976, when our geography teacher, Mrs Christopher, decided to take the class on a walk along a disused railway line on the pretext of examining the minerals and flora. Though normally a school coach outing did require us to wear uniform, the fact that we might have been scrambling through brambles and undergrowth meant that on that warm summer’s day - and the summer of 1976 was then the hottest on record - we were free to dress as we wished. Instead of the uniform grey, a collection of kids waited for their coach in the Woolmer Hill School car park, dressed casually and in every colour. We each looked round at one another, as if we were meeting our classmates for the first time, curious to see how he or she was dressed. I wore an orange shirt and blue silky jeans. And when Brian B. uttered some unprovoked fatuous remark about my clothing, Jacqui B., much to my surprise and delight, quipped that at least what I was wearing looked better than his choice. For the first time, I had selected my own clothes, felt good in them and had received positive feedback from a girl in the class, who usually only displayed her razor tongue to her male classmates.

Just as we were about to depart, Headmaster Anning arrived to inspect us. He pointed at several people and angrily objected to their clothing. What annoyed him most was the his temporary loss of control of the pupil’s bodies and appearance; even for one day a free choice in clothing for teenageers was a threat to his authoritarian world view. Yet, that day, he could not win: our non-wearing of school uniform was a result of a school decision. He realised that, gave up berating us and stormed off.

Woolmer Hill pupils wore their own clothes to wander the disused railway line, but the following day we were back at school in our uniforms. But what of those who sought to reject uniform for no other reason than to oppose the values of the school? Just as the existence of school uniform was part of the landscape of school life, so were the petty practices of teenage rebellion. Nobody rebelled by taking off clothes and running around naked: that simply wasn’t done. But overtly breaching school uniform and rules was regarded as part of the game for a minority.

For boys being deliberately slovenly was an instrument of pointless protest: the tie skew-wiff, the shirt hanging out, the shoe-laces undone, or the conspicuous non-wearing of a tie. Short of open defiance these delicts could be defeated by an order from a teacher to remedy the situation on the spot. If rebellion were desired, much more effective was to follow the fashion of the early 1970s and grow long hair and break the rule of having it hanging over the collar. Hair could not be cut on the spot and as the length of the male pupils’ hair grew across the school, so the orders to get it cut both multiplied and were defied. Dissidents had to work hard - and put up with the inconvenience of long hair - to get sent home for this reason. It was even possible to cheek Anning on the issue, as I heard one boy telling Anning after being ordered to have his hair cut that “his mother was still trying to get an appointment with the stylist.” On that occasion even Anning though demonstrating mock outrage could not fail but to be amused.

Only on one occasion was I pulled up on account of my hair. I had been sent to Headmaster Anning for scribbling notes during a technical drawing lesson and had to listen to the standard threatening lecture. At end, as I was dismissed from the room, I received the order, “And get your hair cut!” I can’t remember whether I complied, perhaps I didn’t relying on the likelihood that Anning would have forgotten all about it by the time our paths next crossed. I never desired my hair very long, and so it was normally never an issue at school, but was more of a problem at home with my mother stopping my pocket money over my absolute refusal to order “short-back-and-sides” at the hairdresser.

Between acceptance and rejection, there was a third position, manipulation. And it was approach which I adopted. From the age of fourteen or so, when the issue of school uniform first became a live issue in my mind, I could not accept uniform without question in the way that a majority of my circle of friends did. I did not oppose dress codes for school, but the requirement to wear grey insulted the dignity of the individual in my eyes. And yet, I shared little in common with those who wished to rebel for the sake of rebellion. The requirement to wear uniform irritated me, but it never summoned up the moral outrage that, for instance, the existence of corporal punishment induced. Moreover, I did not wish to get into unnecessary arguments with my teachers, most of whom I either liked or at least felt neutral about. But most strongly of all, the behaviour of anti-school elements had little appeal. I had no need to align myself with their disorder, rudeness, slovenliness and in extreme cases vandalism and violence. Often, even though I would usually refrain from showing it, my sympathy lay with the teachers enforcing rules, rather than those selfishly and mindlessly breaking them.

I had to decide for myself what I wanted to achieve, and I had two main objectives. The first was to avoid wearing a tie. Then as now, I found ties flopping around in front of my chest a nuisance and I have never liked the constriction around my neck of a buttoned up collar. In the summer months there was never a problem, as boys were permitted not to wear ties; the difficulty arose during the rest of the year. The obvious avoidance strategy was to wear a high-necked jumper,as there were no rules about this. Even so, I remember an incident in my first or second year, when Gavin W. was stopped by Mrs Christopher and had the neck of his jumper playfully pulled down to check he was wearing a tie, as indeed he was.

I had little problem with wearing the tie, as the high-necked jumper allowed me to undo the top button, and the jumper stopped the tie from flopping around. But in my fourth year, I went one stage further by wearing a black polo-neck pullover which removed the need to have a tie completely, though I carried one in my bag in case a problem should ever arise. But it never did.

My second objective was not to be easily recognised in public to be wearing Woolmer Hill school uniform on my way to and from school. In this, I was helped by my height more than anything else; I always appeared older than I actually was. Ties of course in practice could be taken off when leaving the school, but the plain white or grey long-sleeved cotton shirts tended to give us away. My polo-necked jumper hid my shirt - and though in practice I could have worn any kind of shirt under my jumper, in fact, I always wore a sleeved shirt in line with school uniform rules. At no time - until one incident in my final year - did I ever receive any complaints about my clothes; I neither sought conflict, nor was any imposed upon me. And I could live with the comprises of my own making.

The Hollingdale Reforms

In the summer of 1977 Headmaster Anning retired from the school, after more than two decades at the helm. His replacement was his deputy, Mrs Hollingdale, who heralded in a raft of changes, which were humanistic and practical, rather than liberal in intent. My final year, my fifth, at the school was under her headship, which both in its retention of the old order and in its reforms had to contend with the ghostly shadow of Anning’s regime.

One area that was subject to immediate reform was school uniform; and the changes were significant. The black, grey and white axis was expanded to include dark blue for jumpers, skirts, shirts and trousers, though how dark the blue should be was never defined, though jeans were still strictly prohibited. Oddly, scarlet jumpers were also permitted, though few pupils, myself included, opted to wear one. But the end result, save for the tie rule for boys, was that school uniform had in reality given way to a dress code.

I chose to make only one modification to my clothing in the new regime. I abandoned my black polo necks, for a blue high neck jumper. And though it was more light blue than dark, I was never pulled up on the shade of colour. The jumper also broke the the rules in another way in that it had a narrow darker blue band of colour around the neck and wrists. Clothes with patterns were not permitted. I gave up wearing a tie under my jumper, and I was more or less content with my attire. In fact, I can recall an autumn day in 1977, sitting on my desk in my registration classroom in the Upper School Building and being distinctly satisfied with who I was and what I was wearing.

Only twice in my final year did I run into any kind of problems with my clothing. The enforcer of petty rules among the fifth formers had fallen to the ex-military teacher, Mr Jimpson. This petty-minded authoritarian seemed not to have any specific teaching subject, but taught everything, mainly to lower sets and under-performers. But he mostly enjoyed the enforcement of school rules. He seemed to crave respect and in return for that granted dispensations in return, but to do those deals he had to find faults, so was always lurking, watching and prowling in corridors. Neither being taught by him, nor usually one of the people violating school rules, I was able to keep him at arms’ length. Unfortunately, following a short but intense run-in with him on one specific issue, he had me in his sights and one day found fault with my trousers. I cannot remember the reason, because I invariably wore black trousers in line with the rules, but he insisted that, had it not been exam revision time - and in reality the exams were weeks ahead, - I would have been sent home to change. I summed up what I had to do quickly: I apologised, agreed that he was right and wore another pair of black trousers for the next few days.The problem went away.

The second problem was more silly. I felt very attached to my light blue jumper, but by the spring it had simply started to fall apart. My elbows were coming through the sleeves and a close friend, Jill, presented me with a pair of black leather patches to place over them. I didn’t know whether elbow patches violated school uniform rules or not, but that aside it was nearly impossible to sow them on as the knitted wool around the holes was fraying. Despite several comments - this time not only from Mr Jimpson, but from other teachers and usually in myrth - I kept my jumper in one piece until the summer term when ties no longer had to be worn.

In my last year at Woolmer Hill school, matters of school uniform affected me little. I would have preferred to have worn slightly more casual clothes at times (e.g. jeans) and not to have to worry about covering my neck up in the winter months, but I could live the situation. Then came June 1978 after which I never had to wear uniform again: the sixth-form college that I would be attending from September had no uniform, and its dress code was so liberal I never even heard about it. And I recall that September morning in 1978 walking to Haslemere train station on my way to college for the first time wearing clothes of my own choice. School uniform was behind me.

School uniform in 2013

In my other essays about Woolmer Hill in the mid 1970s it has not been possible to make any form of comparison with the school of then with the one of today. However in matters of school uniform it proved easy to look up the current school uniform requirements on the net and attempt a comparison. Of course, the caveat has to be added that irrespective of what Woolmer Hill School management tells parents on their website, the reality on the ground may differ from the published rules, but a survey of the current school uniform regulations and a comparison with the past is still interesting.

Even the briefest glance at the current rules which are published online shows that the dress requirements of today are in most cases far more restrictive than what was permitted in the 1970s. Let us look at the situation for boys: blazers have become compulsory (one wonders if this is enforced during heat waves!), shirts may only be white (we could also choose grey and later blue); jumpers must be dark blue (we could choose black and grey). The situation for footwear has not changed, black or grey socks with black shoes. Ties must still be worn (there is no indication of a dispensation for the summer months) but the requirement to wear a tie is still only imposed on boys.

The requirements for girls are even harsher and more ridiculous. Girls must wear blazers, which was something very rare in the 1970s. Under these, as for boys, they should wear a dark blue jumper and under that “open neck blouses” - the colour isn’t specified in the published online regulations, but I am sure this is merely an oversight. The colour of underwear under the blouse is also prescribed: it must be white. Socks must be black or white (not grey), and not be higher than the ankle. Shoes must be black, have low heels and not be trainers. Tights must be black or transparent. On their bottom half, girls, other than those in their first year, must “wear (a) plain black skirt either pleated with a yoke, or A-line or straight with a pleat, a maximum of 17 cms below or above the knee, or black, tailored trousers.” Particularly prohibited are skirts held up with elastic and decorated belts. Navigating and enforcing this gamut of humiliating and idiotic rules is, of course, an utter waste of time and energy. But in the years ahead things are set to worsen.

First year girls, and later all female pupils in the school, will wear a blue a pleated skirt inscribed with the institution’s initials and only obtainable from one designated supplier. Two points should be made about this blue pleated skirt. First, it overturns the victory won by pupils in 1974 for the right of girls to wear trousers to school. Admittedly in 2013 there aren’t power cuts in schools, but wearing a skirt with tights on cold winter days is far from comfortable. Second, the skirt, seemingly with deliberate intent, is unfashionable and ugly; it is a vindictive attempt to undermine the dignity of young women. Yet, according the Woolmer Hill website:

"From September 2012 we are introducing a new school skirt, which is a dark blue pleated design with the school initials embroidered on the left hand side. This skirt can be only be purchased from our supplier, Clova. All female year 7 pupils should wear this from September 2012, with the rest of the school converting to the skirt in September 2013. We are sure you will be in favour of this improvement, which our pupils can wear with pride."

Why is it an “improvement” indeed? And why should female pupils wear this ugly garment with pride? Surely a person prides what he or she does voluntarily: pride might lead someone deciding to wear a garment, but not vice versa.

Makeup and jewellery remain forbidden in 2013 as they were in the 1970s, and perhaps not without good reason. The current dispensation, though, permitting a pierced ear stud is a small gain: for I am sure ear studs would have invoked censure four decades ago. Long hair, according to the rules, is to be tied back, but whether that differs from the 1970s I cannot recall. But what is significant, and represents a real step forward, is that the rules pertaining to jewellery and long hair do not seem to be gender specific, and thus appear to apply as much to boys as to girls.

But ear studs and hair aside, school uniform at Woolmer Hill today, at least on paper, is more tightly restricted than it was in the mid 1970s and the trend is for the situation to deteriorate.

School uniform and the forward march of illiberalism

The trend regarding school uniform in the mid 1970s was towards greater liberalisation: the successful campaign in 1974 for girls to be permitted to wear trousers to school and the Hollingdale reforms in 1977 were, whatever their stated intentions, moves in that direction. In 2013 the freedom of choice open to pupils in what they wear at school is smaller than what we enjoyed and is set, for girls at least, to narrow further. Why?

One contributory factor, though not the main reason, relates to income. In the 1970s spending on school clothes, particularly for families with several children, consumed a larger share of household income than in 2013. It would simply not have been possible to compel families to provide their school children with blazers, let alone a range of clothing from designated suppliers, which tends to be even more expensive. Undoubtedly, family income hindered the imposition of school uniforms, but money hardly accounted for the weakening of uniform rules in the 1970s.

The 1970s were the high tide of movement of protest for individual rights in post-war Britain. Young people constituted a higher proportion of the population in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 2010s, and even if standards of living were on average lower than today, unemployment was low and the level of income security was much higher. A whole generation rebelled against rigid social conformities. The struggle by liberals and youth against the status quo was accompanied by trade union and working class pressure for economic change. The overall result was that traditional authority in Britain was under siege and slipping.

By contrast, the period from election of the Thatcher government in 1979 until now has seen an on-going re-imposition of authority from above over what had become in the 1970s a rebellious nation. Changes of government in the last three decades have made little difference to that process. Instilling social discipline and promoting docility was as much the currency of New Labour as it was and has been of the Tories. Of course, the clock has not been wound back to the closed rigid society of the 1950s, which Headmaster Anning might have seen as a kind of model Various taboos of the immediate post-war period, such as homosexuality, have been abandoned, and gay and lesbian people have now rightly been accepted into society. And in communication, the internet has enabled hitherto unthinkable levels of information and opinion to flow between citizens, even if the high tide of that freedom has now passed. Nevertheless, the left-leaning liberal cultural rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s is not something that resonates greatly in the youth of Middle England towns such as Haslemere, today.

The internal life of British school has reflected and epitomised that conservative development; they have thus become both more illiberal and more culturally diverse at the same time. Often liberalism and diversity are wrongly conflated in some people’s minds, but in fact they are entirely different. Let me take an example to illustrate that point. If in the 1970s a Muslim girl had arrived at Woolmer Hill, school uniform rules would have prevented her wearing a veil, but today it is highly likely in Britain’s more culturally diverse society that Woolmer Hill would adapt its rules to accommodate these religious norms - and might even insist on the veil if the parents desired it to be worn but the girl did not. But if a non-Muslim girl decided to don a veil purely for private reasons, there would be no question of her being allowed to do so. In other words, society can become more diverse, less liberal and enforce diversity in an illiberal way. As a thumb-nail sketch that is what is happening in England today, and that is what seems to have happened at Woolmer Hill School.

No comments: