Helen Martin: Why blazers and ties don’t add up

James Gillespie's High girls in school uniform in 1966. Picture: George Smith
James Gillespie's High girls in school uniform in 1966. Picture: George Smith
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WHEN the now not-so-Young Master began secondary school at James Gillespie’s, I remember wishing it insisted on uniform.

The teen fashion of the day was over-sized T-shirts, low-slung baggy jeans and hoodies which, mixed with teenage-boy mumbling, the sulkiness of puberty and the odd plook, didn’t give a very scholarly impression.

To be fair I don’t think he would have been any more scholarly if he had been done up like an Etonian. Excel at school he did not. But he made up for it afterwards by working his way through FE and subsequently bagging his Hons degree at art school, a much tougher journey than if he had knuckled down earlier.

I’d like to think part of that latter recovery was down to his own character and personality but I’m also sure Gillespie’s had a lot to do with instilling values which would ultimately stand him in good stead.

The then headmaster “Waldo”, as he was known to pupils – Mr Wallace to the parents – appeared to know every single pupil whether they were high achievers, strugglers, middling, showed promise or were late developers, and was keen to know how they fared in the years after they left.

He grasped, certainly before I did, that the world of learning and employment had changed. Good grades are ideal and certainly what parents see as the purpose of school. But without the other qualities the school majored on – diversity, equality, creativity, respect, achievement, hope, compassion, determination and responsibility – exams don’t really count for much in a world where no job is for life and career paths are as predictable as the weather.

In that respect, James Gillespie’s was a little ahead of its time, and despite having a mainly middle-class catchment area, or perhaps because of it, egalitarian attitudes were encouraged.

I doubt a school uniform would have improved either that excellent grounding or the exam results, which is why I agree with Tina Woolnough of the National Parent Forum of Scotland when she says a young person’s sense of their own belonging is more important than the idea that a uniform creates a sense of belonging and identity in relation to school. Uniforms come off at night and school ends at 18, despite the views of some that they are umbilically-attached to their alma mater until death.

It’s not the old school tie that keeps the YM in touch with friends he made at Gillespie’s, it’s the fact that they like each other, have shared experiences and memories, and for many of them, similar values.

Edinburgh, of course, has a history of independent schooling even for families who in any other city would never consider their incomes sufficient to pay the fees. It is also known for stereotyping people according to the independent school they attended, which is rather unfair. So we are all used to uniforms

Ironically, it’s the very absence of uniform that has become a tradition at state-run Gillespie’s. It suggests freedom of thought, open-mindedness and individuality. It would be a great shame if parents and children now being given the chance to choose, voted to bring it back.