Has the time come to hang up the school uniform?
As the new term begins, parents want to slash spending on pricey outfits
To their detractors, they are a relic of regi- mented, old-fashioned schooling; a sign that Irish education still values conformity above individuality.
The supporters of uniforms, on the other hand, say they encourage equality in schools by stopping competition among pupils over who has the most expensive designer gear.
Whether they love them or loathe them, most parents moan about the cost of school outfits at this time of year.
A survey by Bank of Ireland and the education website Schooldays.ie found that three-quarters of parents believe uniforms are too expensive.
Ninety per cent of parents say schools should have a detachable crest that can be fixed to standard school clothing available in supermarkets.
The survey showed that parents now typically spend €260 on school clothes for each child at second level every year, and €204 at primary level.
The sheer number of items that require school crests -- often available from just one local supplier at a high cost -- is a frequent cause of complaint.
Schools may require pupils to have blazers, jumpers, ties, PE shirts, hoodies, track suits, and coats -- all emblazoned with the school logo.
As one former principal puts it: "Some schools are going over the top. They almost have branded knickers nowadays.''
The children's charity Barnardos and the National Consumer Agency have backed calls for less specialised uniforms in order to cut down costs. So why do we stick with uniforms at all?
The ubiquity of the uniform is a legacy of our close ties with Britain, where they are common, and the primacy of the Catholic church in education.
"In many other countries uniforms are as scarce as hen's teeth,'' says Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals.
"In Ireland, most parents support them because they eliminate a lot of the jostling to see who has the best designer jeans.
"If you don't have a school uniform, the uniform becomes denim.''
Sean Ashe, chief executive of Kildare VEC, believes uniforms can end up saving parents money, because they do not have to shell out on expensive brands.
"You get parents who complain about the cost of a uniform, but they think nothing about spending over €100 on trainers,'' says Sean Ashe.
Supporters say they help to foster pride in a school. Identifiable clothing makes it easier for staff to identify who should be on the school premises.
They also make it easier for teachers to keep groups together on school trips.
Opponents of uniforms argue that they are not suited to a modern education system where encouraging creativity and innovation should be more important than forcing children to conform.
The Educate Together primary schools do not have school uniforms. Educate Together's spokesman John Holohan says: "The schools are multi-denominational and multi- cultural. It would be one of our founding principles to encourage individuality and move away from traditional, hierarchical schooling.
"Just because the schools have no uniforms, it doesn't mean that we have a laissez-faire approach to discipline.''
Neil O'Callaghan, a teacher at St Thomas's Community College in Bray, used to teach in a second-level school in Germany where there was no uniform.
He says the absence of prescribed outfits in German schools helped staff and students to relate to each other in a more open and democratic fashion.
"I believe uniforms are a remnant of the old days of authoritarian schooling in Ireland, and that we'd all be better off if they were abolished.''
Whatever their views on the rights and wrongs of uniforms, Irish teachers spend considerable time vainly trying to enforce dress codes. Teenagers have always tried to observe clothing rules in the breach.
Neil O'Callaghan argues that certain troublesome pupils will wear the wrong uniform because it's another way for them to create the conflict they thrive on.
"It makes them look important in the eyes of their peers. If you take away the uniform, the problem is gone.''
Although the Educate Together schools and some Church of Ireland establishments do without a uniform, there is little sign that other schools will follow suit. Principals and parents are attached to them.
Perhaps it is time to make the outfits a little more flamboyant. Schools could follow the example of Japan, where boys go to school in outfits modelled on the 19th Century Prussian army uniform.
Dressed in this military attire, pupils would certainly cut a dash at the bus stop.