School may look a little different this term, but at least the pupils look the same as ever. Wearing their familiar school uniform – rather than the pyjamas they may well have been sporting for most of the strange summer term of home schooling – is a very noticeable step towards the normality schools, pupils and parents have been craving since the closure began in the spring.
“When all of our pupils came back to school in September, they returned in uniform as usual,” says Heather Cavanagh, deputy head of Burgess Hill Girls in West Sussex, which, in common with many schools, throughout the summer term had allowed the children of key workers and particular year groups to come in wearing their home clothes.
“In June we took the decision not to ask the girls to wear uniform as we also had many girls in for childcare who were technically ‘not in school’,” Cavanagh explains.
“It also meant siblings in school years that could not come into school did not feel left out by seeing their sisters in years that could come in wearing uniform. Our priority was the emotional wellbeing of all pupils, both in and out of school. But our school uniform helps to unite us as a community, so the girls are back in their uniform in the classroom now.”
A sense of belonging
Certainly, creating the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself is perhaps the school uniform’s real talent and never has there been a better time to put it into action.
“After months of being separated, it really is critical to revive that strong sense of belonging that schools can offer,” says Matthew Easter, co-chair of the Schoolwear Association, which welcomed wholeheartedly the government’s guidance that uniform should be worn when pupils returned in September.
“With social distancing measures in place and some students being required to wear face coverings, we think that wearing a uniform and maintaining a familiar routine is more important than ever as pupils return to their classrooms.”
Manufactured to high standards
Parents though have been a little more circumspect. After months of hand sanitising, face covering and bleaching the supermarket shopping, many have been quizzing schools about the safety of their children’s school clothes.
“We are not aware of any formal research or study that has confirmed a risk that Covid-19 can be effectively transferred on garments,” says Easter. “The Department for Education guidance issued in early July confirmed that no special clothing requirements would be needed when schools returned in September. A specialist uniform is manufactured to high standards in terms of durability and quality.”
In fact, Tim James, co-founder of uniform supplier Schoolblazer, points out that garments his company sells can be washed more than 200 times and worn more than 500 times during their lifetime – compare that to the average high-street item, which is designed to be worn no more than 20 times.
“School uniform is the perfect clothing to be worn during a pandemic,” says James. “Not only does it create a sense of cohesion and identity, but it’s washable and extremely durable.”
Indeed, at first glance, there may not appear to be many differences between garments made to be worn at school and the casual clothes for sale on the high street. However, specialist schoolwear is carefully designed and manufactured to withstand whatever can be thrown at it in the playground and the classroom, and to survive machine washing on repeat so it can be kept clean easily.
After months of being separated, it really is critical to revive that strong sense of belonging that schools can offer – Matthew Easter, Schoolwear Association
Given the number of hours, days, weeks and wash cycles that uniform has to stand up to, the most suitable fibres and fabric compositions are crucial if schoolwear is to be fit for purpose at any time, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic.
The fabrics specified for school uniform garments are usually of much more complex constructions than are found in regular clothing. Although these are costly to produce, of course, they are much more robust and longer lasting. For example, the woven fabrics used in the manufacture of schoolwear have twice as many horizontal fibres than regular woven fabrics, which makes for a garment that is far more hard-wearing than average.
Quality yarns also help to improve school clothes’ resilience to wear and washing over a long period of time – for example, they are much less likely to suffer from the dreaded surface ‘bobbling’ than high-street purchases. Colours remain vibrant thanks to the use of the most suitable dyes and manufacturing processes, which is no mean feat on a weekly 40-degree wash and, in the case of many items of school uniform these days, regular tumble drying.
Blended fibres, such as polyester cotton, are often used in the manufacture of school uniform because they offer a good compromise between comfort and strength in the longer term; though many people tend to look for 100% cotton in a garment, this is far less rugged than a blended fibre and therefore a totally cotton garment is less likely to wear as well in the long term as something made from a mix with a man-made fibre.
The construction of schoolwear also has an impact on its quality and longevity. Hardwearing seams, additional strengthening around key stress points, a robust internal construction and plenty of interlinings all contribute to the quality of an item of school uniform and the chances of it lasting longer. Again, many of these inbuilt features can be costly and aren’t necessarily visible, but together with the choice of specialist materials, they can make for schoolwear that will stay clean and look presentable for more than just a term or two.
With manufacturing industries of all kinds struggling to keep the factories working throughout the year, maintaining the supply of school uniform has been a challenge.
“Most of our suppliers, including some of the UK weavers who make cloth for many of our items, shut down in March, prior to manufacturing this year’s product,” reports James from Schoolblazer.
“Our buying team did an excellent job managing our production, moving product to alternative factories and in some cases working with our suppliers to keep them afloat and solvent.”
Clearly, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to keep the uniform shops well stocked and to support the huge global industry focused on making sure school clothing is available for parents to buy.
“The entire supply chain has pulled together,” says Caroline Bunting, Perry Uniform’s managing director. “Without the directive from the government, the industry that supports the uniform sector, including cloth mills, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers – all of whom have invested in stock to support the schools for the start of the academic year – would have faced an uncertain future.
“We have been encouraged to see manufacturers deferring holidays and working additional hours to make up for the loss of time, some of whom have been more successful than others.”
Thanks to these efforts, most uniform shops have been well stocked in the run-up to the start of term and schools have welcomed back students who are wearing the full uniform list.
“In our experience, schools asked parents to make sure that they had ordered a full uniform because they wanted to be able to adopt their usual policy on uniform,” says Bunting. “Schools were keen to get back into the routines that existed prior to the pandemic to offer a sense of continuity and reassurance to their students.”
Demand for particular items, such as hoodies and trackpants, is way in excess of usual expectations – Tim James, Schoolblazer
But, as with most of the arrangements concerning pupils’ return, some schools have had no choice but to make minor compromises. Although the garments themselves have not generally presented problems, the requirements for social distancing in schools have meant that many sports changing rooms are now out of bounds to all but a fraction of the usual number of pupils to use simultaneously.
And, with space in school buildings and on the timetable at a premium for teaching use, changing clothes during the school day has become a casualty of logistics.
“Some schools are requiring pupils to come to school in school sports kit on days that they have PE lessons,” says James of Schoolblazer. “This has presented us with some challenges, as demand for particular items, such as hoodies and trackpants, is way in excess of usual expectations.”
Although certain items of clothing are still on back order, the vast majority of school pupils now perhaps pull on their school uniforms with a little more enthusiasm than usual after a term spent in solitary study at the kitchen table.
“It’s widely recognised that wearing uniform encourages concentration and good behaviour in the classroom and creates a sense of belonging which, following the extended period away from school, can really help to rebuild the sense of a school’s community,” says Bunting. “In these uncertain times, anything that helps to reassure children can only be good.”
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