The uniform is integral to a school’s identity. It creates a sense of community and of belonging – particularly important for students from different countries and cultures – and provides continuity. The humble uniform has even been proven to have a positive influence on pupil attitudes, encouraging good behaviour and professionalism.
“Wearing school uniform helps create a sense of pride in the school and allows all children to feel part of the same community,” said Caroline Dunn, Deputy Head of Cheadle Hulme.
The importance of the school uniform is undeniable, but in recent years, it’s more so than ever. Schools now have a tricky tightrope to walk when it comes to branding, negotiating the balancing act of needing to present themselves as institutions that are both traditional and modern.
Despite being keen not to leave behind their heritage and traditional values, independent schools are becoming more aware of the need to modernise, the biggest development of recent years being the introduction of gender-neutral uniforms and taking advantage of the latest trends in sportswear technology.
Tradition and modernity
So, what does the modern independent school look for in its uniform? Attitudes towards uniforms vary widely from school to school, but one constant remains: the uniform needs to be able to convey the contradiction of both tradition and modernity. It has to represent the traditional values of the school but also show it to be a forward-thinking institution with modern ideals and state-of-the-art facilities.
Liz Pengelly, Marketing Manager and Registrar at The Peterborough School, explained that their uniform – a distinctive green, red and yellow blazer over a green and white striped shirt – gets that balance right. While other schools have redesigned and rebranded time and time again over the years, the Peterborough uniform has remained the same for seven decades, but with upgraded materials and modern tailoring.
“It’s traditional with a modern twist – all members of the school community value the traditional values of good manners, good behaviour and kindness to each other, but the facilities, resources and teaching methods are very up to date. This is reflected in the uniform in that the materials and tailoring are modern but the colours are more traditional,” she said.
Some change, some stay the same
The Peterborough School’s decision to keep its uniform over decades, has been partly to provide continuity when other aspects of the school have changed.
“The uniform is smart and represents us. Lots of things have changed, including the name of the school and many of the facilities, but the uniform has been a consistent part of the school for over 70 years,” Liz Pengelly added.
Most schools, however, have redesigned their uniform at one time or another. Whether as part of a school-wide rebrand, when changing suppliers, or because of popular demand, there generally comes a time in a school’s existence when its leaders decide to make alterations.
For Burgess Hill Girls’ School, rebranding was a chance to modernise. “The school has a fantastic reputation for providing an outstanding education for girls from two-and-a-half to 18, but it was time to smarten up our look and make ourselves more visible and modern looking,” said Liz Laybourn, Head at Burgess Hill Girls.
Burgess Hill was keen to introduce a uniform that fitted with the rebrand. “Our aim as a school was for the uniform to be smart and contemporary, but cost-effective for the parents,” explained Liz Laybourn.
Lady Eleanor Holles has also been through many uniform changes since its founding in 1710, and have even considered getting rid of the uniform, but, “It has always been agreed that the advantages of having a uniform outweigh the disadvantages,” said Heather Hanbury, Head at Lady Eleanor Holles.
The importance of branding
Over the years, branding has become increasingly important to schools. In today’s image-filled world, independent schools cannot afford to ignore how important the impression they give is.
The uniform – in the school and on the field – is essential to the school’s identity, and colour scheme, fabric and cut all play a key role in projecting the right image.
The uniform is also crucial to a school’s branding. It enables pupils to be the face of the school. Pupils are the school’s brand ambassadors and they represent the school when they are at events and competitions, so it’s important for institutions that the uniform – including the sports kit – identifies pupils as being from that school.
Schools have been forced to become experts of branding. Gone are the days when it was enough to have the school logo on the letterhead and as a badge on the school blazer. Now, branding needs to be more subtle – and more ubiquitous.
When Burgess Hill School decided on a rebrand two years ago, the uniform was a key part of the process.
“As part of the rebrand, it was important to review the uniform, ensuring it fitted with the new design and the fresh approach,” added Liz Laybourn. “Our aim as a school was for the uniform to be smart and contemporary, but also cost-effective for the parents.”
Many providers liaise with schools on a uniform rebrand, and Burgess Hill worked closely with supplier Schoolblazer on the design.
“Schoolblazer were fantastic to work with and, irrespective of how many times we moved the goalposts, they knew we all had the same end goal in mind. The overall choice came down to maintaining the school colours, allowing the yellow element of the brand to be quite visible and ensuring we were a little different from other school uniforms,” said Liz Laybourn.
“The school is a vibrant, energetic and purposeful place to learn. The uniform depicts this ethos and for the sixth form the introduction of a suit has been well received,” continued Liz Laybourn. “The girls feel businesslike and enjoy being able to add their own individuality, through choice of blouse, to what is a well-fitted navy suit.”
One radical way that schools have modernised, is by ending the longstanding policy of assigning uniform by gender. Gender-neutral uniforms are gradually becoming the norm, as well as schools relabelling the uniform options into ‘skirts’ and ‘trousers’, instead of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. Consequently, Lady Eleanor Holles School has introduced a trouser option for its girls.
“It is very important that anyone who chooses not to wear a skirt is catered for,” said Heather.
Co-education school, Cheadle Hulme, has chosen a different course, leaving its uniform options as they were, but renaming them. From this September, the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ uniform will now be called ‘trouser uniform’ and ‘skirt uniform’.
“Our aim at Cheadle Hulme School is for young people to be comfortable with who they are and to feel part of our wonderful community,” explained Caroline. “The new nomenclature will ensure equality for boys and girls when deciding on their preferred dress. The change in uniform policy negates gender/transgender discrimination, and embraces cultural diversity. We want our students to be proud to be Waconians and to wear their uniform with pride; the change to our uniform policy is to recognise gender equality.”
What does the future hold for the schoolwear market? The biggest technological advances have been in sportswear. Breathable fabrics, smart clothing, wearable tech… Over recent years, we’ve seen astonishing developments in sportswear technology, and independent schools have made sure they’re not left behind.
Researchers at the University of Salford have been working on a project to develop smart clothing that’s able to monitor heart rate and muscle activity. They’ve been working with Smartlife, a company specialising in smart clothes technology. Smartlife has already created textile sensors that can be used in sports clothing to record data on the wearer’s performance and transmit it in real time via bluetooth.
Despite all these developments available to the schools that can afford them, the same principles remain important.
“It must be highly visible and easy to recognise on and off the playing field and it must be technically high quality and hard wearing,” said Heather.
“Pupils’ views are very important when any changes are made. We also work with our supplier to ensure we have modern, high-quality fabrics which wear well,” added Liz Pengelly.