The summer holiday is once more nearly over and in a matter of weeks a new school year begins here in the Netherlands. It’s the time of year when I am starkly reminded that I am a British expat and my school days are very different to those of my three sons.
At this point in my summer holiday my mum, brother and I would be heading to the local shop that stocked our school uniforms, somewhere like the department store Clements on Watford High Street, or British Home Stores. We’d be combing the store armed with a list supplied by school, all the items we were required to wear over the course of our school year: white blouses or shirts, short sleeved for summer and long sleeved for winter; a grey skirt or trousers and grey shorts for summer or a yellow and white checked summer dress for the girls; a grey cardigan or jumper; and the piece de resistance our yellow, almost gold coloured tie. And then of course there were our gym outfits to buy too. When we moved to secondary school our uniform changed colour to maroon but the end of the summer holiday ritual remained the same.
However, it is not a ritual I need to go through with my own children. Dutch school children do not wear school uniforms. They wear whatever they like. There is no scurrying around the shops during school holidays to get the necessary supply of school clothes for the year. It is simply a case of making sure my eldest has sports clothes without holes for his gym classes.
Every September my Facebook timeline spills over with pictures posted by my British friends of their children wearing their school uniforms for the very first time. It’s a photo I don’t have. I don’t have those ‘first day of school’ photos of my two eldest sons in their crisp, stiff school uniforms. We have no first day of school photos with an uncomfortable smile because of a collar and a tie that feels peculiar to a child who has yet to turn five.
School uniforms are just not commonplace in the Netherlands. The only place I have seen them worn is the British School in the Netherlands, highlighting just how much wearing a school uniform really is traditional British. An OFT report cites that 79% of junior schools in Britain has a compulsory school uniform, when you get to secondary school this rises to 98%. In short, if you go to school in Britain there is a good chance you’ll be wearing a school uniform.
School uniforms in Britain form the basis of a hotly contested political debate. Michael Gove, the former Education secretary, believed that uniforms in schools are beneficial and that the wearing of blazers and ties contribute to school success. He stated that schools with uniforms have better results.
School uniform supporters say that a uniform helps pupils identify with their school and feel part of a school community; a uniform evokes pride in pupils and encourages discipline; it dissolves social equalities (because clothes are the same regardless of background) and therefore reduces the chances of bullying.
Those against the idea of school uniforms say they are a means of exerting power and control over kids. One reason cited to abolish school uniforms is to allow teachers to spend their time teaching rather than ensuring that children adhere to school uniform rules.
American academic (school uniforms are gaining popularity in the US), David Brunsma, concluded after eight years of research that school uniforms make no difference whatsoever to the standard of schools or their results.
So, love them or loath them, whether they have a positive effect or not, school uniforms are a British thing many other countries across the globe have seen no reason to adopt. And that includes the country I now call home, the one I am raising my three Dutch boys in.
I grew up wearing a school uniform and somewhere in my parent’s photo archives there is a picture of me on my first day of school, proudly parading my brand new uniform. I will have no such photo in my photo archive – but I hope one day my sons will see that photo and learn something about my British school days.
These little changes, these breaks with my own cultural traditions, are part and parcel of expat life. It’s a small sacrifice to make to raise little multicultural people.
What school traditions, or customs have you broken with because of raising children in a different culture or country than the one you went to school in? Do your children wear school uniforms?