School Uniform: English Comprehensive Schools

Figure 1.--.

Some 90 percent of British state secondary schools are now comprehensive schools. The comprehensive was created along the lines of non-selective American high schools as part of the Labour Party's desire to create a more egalitarian educational system. The British educational system is not centralized like the French system and thus Labour could no easily or quickly change all schools. The comprehensives were mostly established in the late 1960s and 1970s, a period in which it was becoming less common for boys, especially older boys to wear traditional school uniform like short pants and caps. Most comprehensives did, however, continue to require blazers and ties.

The Move to Comprehensive Education

The Labour Party was never in government for long enough to enforce it everywhere and the move to do away with selection at 11 was always, and still is, fiercely contested by most Conservatives, who describe it as "destroying our grammar schools". Bear in mind that state education has always been highly decentralised in the UK, with most decision-making power residing with the local education authority (LEA). There are about 100 LEAs in England and Wales alone (Scotland is all rather different). These are often under the opposite political control from the central government. They all have their own policies and priorities. Some have a permanent Conservative majority and some of these have managed to resist all efforts to make them "go comprehensive".

The upshot is that there are still, even in 1998, a fair handful of places that still have the 11-plus, grammar schools, etc.
The new Labour government seems to have abandoned the idea of pushing for the remainnig non-comprehensive areas to be brought into line, and is now pushing the "pragmatic" line that the important thing is to have good schools everywhere, irrespective of what kind they are, and there will be no more reorganisation and upheaval.
This probably represents the common-sense view (which has long been my own view) that there are good and bad comprehensive schools just as there used to be good and bad grammar schools. And that it is highly debatable how much difference the change, as such, has made in practice.

Comprehensive Uniforms

At all events, comprehensivisation didn't really get going on a very large scale until the 1970s, and by then, not only had short trousers largely disappeared anyway, but there was a "progressive" mood in the air which was generally opposed to the whole idea of uniform - never a majority view, but strong enough at that time to hold sway in many places. So quite a lot of the comprehensive schools that came into being from scratch in that period either had a relaxed attitude to uniform or, in some cases, no uniform at all.

But this was by no means true of all of them. For one thing, the first comprehensive schools had appeared in the early 1950s and there the boys, at least the younger ones, would be as likely to wear shorts and caps as at any other school at that time. For another thing, quite a lot of the new comprehensive schools did not appear from nowhere but had previously been grammar schools, and many of these managed to retain their earlier ethos, including strict discipline and insistence on uniform.

One HBC contributor, for example, points out that his grammar school in Yorkshire, for example, has long since gone comprehensive but still has exactly the same uniform as when I was there 35 years ago, except of course that the trousers are all long ones and there are no caps these days.

Meanwhile, the "progressive" mood of the 1960s and 1970s has gone entirely into reverse in the 1980s and 1990s, and schools with uniform and discipline are now greatly in demand from parents (and schools are now required to be very much more parent-responsive than they used to be).

What all this means is that many comprehensive schools always had a uniform and still do, some never did and still don't, some perhaps used to but now don't, and some which began without them have actually adopted a uniform for the first time. So, as you see, it is difficult to make generalisations, even about the much maligned comprehensive schools. There is so much diversity that such generalizations are likely to be wrong! The other conclusion I would stress is that the absence of shorts and caps from the history of most comprehensive schools is more a function of the era than of the type of school.

Additional Information

Related Links: Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but both sites are highly recommended

Apertures Press International Project: Pictures at schools in different countries and a book on British schools
Apertures Pres New Zealand book: New book on New Zealand schools in progress
School Uniform Web Site: Informative review of British school uniforms with some excellent photographs
Boys' Preparatory Schools: Photographic essay available on British preparatory school during the 1980s

Christopher Wagner

Related Chronolgy Pages in the Boys' Historical Web Site
[Main Chronology Page]
[The 1880s] [The 1930s] [The 1940s] [The 1950s]
[The 1960s] [The 1970s] [The 1980s]

Created: November 29, 1998
Last updated: November 29, 1998