School uniforms

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In Australia the end of January marks the start of the new school year. Little kids ask ‘How many more sleeps?’ before their first day at school while older kids have mixed feelings about their transition to secondary (or High) school. Around the nation shops are packed as parents and children gather together all the essentials for the first day back at school.

I can remember the mix of excitement and apprehension as my first day of High school approached. My mother’s heart sank when we received the long list of items that comprised the compulsory school uniform. Things were tough at home in those years. Dad had inherited a family business that was being overtaken by the march of technological change and as he struggled to make a living the family had to economize wherever it could.

The primary school I attended had a relaxed attitude to uniforms; they were encouraged but not mandatory and many families could only afford one uniform item, a tunic for the girls, perhaps, and a cap or tie for the boys. High school in those days was clearly different. The extensive list specified style, colour and brand and the clothes had to be bought from John Barker’s department store in Kensington High Street, London, which devoted an entire floor to uniforms for various schools. I gasped as I saw the array of uniforms when we marched in. A shop assistant came forward, tape measure in hand, and we started to accumulate a large pile of clothing. The grey pleated skirt and cherry-coloured blazer came first, then long sleeved white Vyella blouses for winter (the summer uniform could wait), grey pullover and school tie, hideous grey felt hat and matching gloves. But wait, there’s more, as the man on the television says. Sports uniform came next, white piqué shirt with monogrammed pocket and grey shorts, navy blue overall for science classes, white overall for domestic science and probably something else again for art. Our arms ached from the weight of our purchases and Mum’s anxiety was palpable as she searched in her purse for enough cash to pay. But the worst was yet to come. I had to have school uniform shoes. With heart in mouth we headed downstairs to the shoe department.

Shoes have been the bane of my life. Today I still cannot find shoes that even approximate the shape of my feet; long, narrow and with no instep. Most shoes fall off unless securely attached with laces and straps. The uniform list specified three pairs of shoes. THREE PAIRS! I had never owned three pairs of shoes at the same time, but here they were, itemized by brand and style: outdoor shoes–brown lace-ups; house shoes–brown with a single strap or plain slip-ons, and plain white plimsolls for sports. I sat there suffering for what seemed an age, trying on shoes of different sizes, fiddling with insoles, anything to make them stay on my feet while not fitting so snugly that I would outgrow them before term ended. My mother’s displeasure was obvious as time after time the shoes fell off as I walked. Why did I need three pairs?

Of course, on my first day at school I discovered why. The school day was punctuated by a shoe-changing ritual, designed to keep the inside of the building free of street grime. On arrival each morning, change out of lace-ups into house shoes. Morning recess, change out of house shoes into lace-ups or plimsolls, depending on the weather, fifteen minutes later, change back into house shoes. At lunchtime we had to change into plimsolls for half an hour’s exercise, then back into house shoes. PE class, change into complete sports uniform and plimsolls and back again. At the end of the day, change out of house shoes into lace-ups for going home. Of course I got confused in the first week, and to my horror found myself heading upstairs after lunch in my plimsolls. “You’ll get detention!” hissed one of my classmates and I quivered in fright all afternoon, desperately trying to hide my mis-shod feet. I survived without punishment and soon learned the routine, but even now I hate buying shoes.