At the chalkface: Roll-up, roll-up! It’s back to school

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Former inner city teacher Ian Whitwham

Blazers can be £100 a time. Dear me. Poor children are being “rolled out” before they are “rolled in”, “disappeared” on arrival...

“Back to school! Back to school! Get your uniform here! The lot!”

So go the dread adverts in supermarket windows. Already? It was only early August. It was time for the bucket and spade. Winding down.

You feel a bit ill. But not as ill as the poor parents who have got to fork out for this clobber. It can cost a fortune, as so many state schools – especially the flasher academies – feel the need to ape private schools with the superficial sheen of the meretricious, the faux posh.

Back to school? Back to the 1950s more like. Back to Boris Johnson’s whizzo, Billy Bunter ‘50s.

Just like my schooldays...

I went with mother in 1953 to acquire a uniform for the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe – the Full Molesworth.

The ensemble went something like this.

  • Grey flannel socks, which itched like locusts.
  • Grey flannel shorts which itched like more locusts.
  • Grey flannel shirts, which itched like even more locusts.
  • A garrotting old school tie worn in a Windsor.
  • A blazer, grey, maroon, braided, with an arcane Latin motto.
  • A cap worn over short, back and sides (if our hair got over the ears we were promptly sent to matron to be shorn like Samson).
  • Very Sensible shoes by Clarks.

Ditto for “grils” – except for the odd boater, a sturdy skirt and a Beryl the Peril coiffure.

Everything tended to the capacious. We were “growing into them”. We looked like we’d been poured into the uniform and had forgotten to say when. Mother parted with a small fortune – and my Christmas club savings. We left angry, skint and bewildered. It wasn’t easy to see how this wardrobe was going to facilitate the learning process.

Well, this fashion seems to be in fashion again. Posh is all the rage, just another part of the war on the poor.

Emma Hardy, the Labour MP, laments that state schools feel so compelled to “emulate grammar schools and private schools”. Lucy Powell, another Labour MP says they “do it deliberately so that only posh kids go there”.

Prospectuses can be full of mostly designer White children in straw hats playing things like lacrosse or cellos.
A survey from the Children’s Society last year found that secondary school uniform cost an average of £340 per year.

Blazers can be £100 a time. Dear me. Poor children are being “rolled out” before they are “rolled in”, “disappeared” on arrival. Where do these ragged trousered infants go? The workhouse? The streets? Up chimneys? In prison? Who knows?

This emphasis on school uniform has nothing do with learning and everything to do with status, snobbery and elitism; of asserting a tawdry and desperate privilege.

Surely school should be free?

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin