There was once a headmaster named Derek O’Keefe. He was a clever and learned man, having studied at one of the country’s elite seats of learning. Wanting to create an impression at his new school, he ordered a review of the current uniform policy. Out went the school’s traditional black trousers and skirt, the white shirt and the blue and white tie, and in came an even more traditional cocktail of blazers, brogues and rules governing length of skirt, hair adornments and haircuts.
‘We are going to recapture the standards and values of the past,’ Mr O’Keefe declared in his blog to parents.
The parents were a little unnerved by such a change, but being a generally supplicant lot, they tried to comply as best as they could with his detailed requests.
And so it was that the children arrived back for the new term in crisp (and expensive) new uniform under Mr O’Keefe’s leadership. They were a little bemused by the sight of their friends in shiny shoes and blazers, but as they spent most of their time looking down at the phones, this initial surprise quickly disappeared (Mr O’Keefe had not yet thought about changing the policy on mobile phone use). Staff patrolled the corridors hawkishly, determined to ensure that every single pupil comply.
Mr O’Keefe soon noticed that the girls’ socks were mainly ankle socks. He didn’t like that at all and sent home an amended policy to parents announcing that girls’ socks should be a minimum of 35cm high. Parents were not sure how to interpret this.
‘Do we measure from the toe?’
‘Or from the ankle?’
‘And is it the same for boys?’
‘And if there’s no maximum length, can they go above the knee?’
A flurry of text messages flew around the school community.
But by now Mr O’Keefe had moved on to the boys’ shoes. Though he had stipulated brown brogues in his revised policy, he noticed many in a different material and some that resembled leisure wear (though still technically brown).
‘These don’t meet my standards!’, he exclaimed and quickly blogged to parents again with an amended policy.
He was to allow the different material but banned any shoe with a running stitch, alternative markings or a manufacturer’s label.
The parents, despite being a supplicant lot, began to get edgy. They’d noticed that one or two of their favourite teachers had left the school. But they did their best and listened on the playground to the assistant headmaster, Mr Hapless, who exclaimed,
‘I’m just the messenger!’
A week or so later, Mr O’Keefe noticed that, in keeping with a general fashion trend, girls were now putting their hair into a ‘top knot’ instead of the traditional bunches or pigtail. This had the consequence of moving the ribbons to a more prominent position, to which Mr O’Keefe took an immediate dislike. He organised a video address to parents clarifying that the ribbons or bobbles needed to be in a position level with, or underneath that of, the ears. In social media forums, parents asked around for help.
‘Does that mean that a top knot is OK as long as there are no ribbons or bobbles attached?’
‘Do the ribbons have to be a particular size?’
‘What if my daughter’s ears are different sizes?’
And from a parent of a pupil with special educational needs, ‘My girl hasn’t got any ears.’
Mr O’Keefe became increasingly frustrated with the amount of questions and comments and instructed Mr Hapless and other colleagues to do regular spot checks of uniform policy, taking them away from their teaching duties in the Music, Technology and Modern Foreign Languages departments. As a result, after three months, all bobbles were in the correct place and were the right colour and size.
Later that term, Mr O’Keefe arrived back from a conference in the Middle East and saw that the uniform standards in Arabic schools were significantly higher (according to OECD estimates). He was especially impressed with the crisp, white kandoora worn by the boys.
‘I can’t believe how white they are, and so well-ironed too!’, he remarked enviously.
He ordered an immediate consultation with the local community consisting of a thirty- minute webinar with Mr Hapless, the results of which he then ignored. The announcement was made. The kandoora was to be compulsory for boys from the beginning of the next term. Girls could carry on with their socks and bobbles now that was working well. Parents, despite being a supplicant lot, became uneasy again.
‘They don’t sell the kandoora at my local supermarket,’ insisted one.
‘My iron’s rubbish,’ lamented another.
Mr O’Keefe remained undaunted and asked the pupils for feedback at a school council meeting. However, a new app had been launched that morning giving pupils the chance to change the images on their phones into one of Mr Hapless mooning at local traffic, and they found this far more entertaining. Only one pupil turned up, Oliver Growlspittle.
‘Sir, I’m fine with the uniform. It’s just that there’s been no teacher for our technology lessons. We’ve been sitting there waiting for the last three weeks,’ Oliver explained hesitantly.
‘OK, Oliver, I’ll absolutely look into that for you. Nice haircut by the way.’
Emboldened by his meeting with Oliver, Mr O’Keefe called a staff briefing asking all teachers to police the uniform changes with increased urgency.
‘If we don’t sort these things out, we’ll be left behind!’, he exclaimed with renewed vigour.
‘And Hapless, sort out the Technology department will you, for goodness sake!’
However, Mr Hapless wasn’t listening because he had travelled to London to pick up an award from the Rapid Improvement in Standards Unit, in particular the division that monitored the length of girls’ socks.
A few months later, parents began to notice that the letters, blogs, tweets and messages from Mr O’Keefe had become less frequent. Mr Hapless and his colleagues became less visible on the playground and in the corridors. Pupils began to look up from their phones and see their friends in shoes with elaborate patterns (and occasionally different colours).
Finally, a letter came home informing them that Mr O’Keefe was leaving the school to pursue a career in the military at the behest of an old friend (who was then shot by an errant bullet during a training exercise in Wiltshire).
Unable to appoint a successor, the school looked to Mr Hapless to keep things going – he was now head of the Science, Law and Creative Arts faculties in addition to Technology. Oliver Growlspittle’s wait for a Technology teacher continued.
With their new-found freedom, pupils experimented with lengths of socks, alternated their kandoora with waistcoats, jackets and tunics, discovered polo shirts and smocks. Ties were worn in different styles, haircuts were inventive, and caps, hats and bandanas nestled down upon them. Bobbles and ribbons were joyously multi-coloured.
And do you know what?
I’ve just realised that my writing has not contained sufficient shifts in formality.