Silencing Swans

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

With the Christmas holidays approaching, the Fellows at St John’s College, Cambridge, may have something special planned for their plates. These Fellows, alone, are allowed to capture, kill and consume any unmarked Mute Swan on open water – an archaic law allowing a barbaric act against a graceful fowl, and in that sense, perfectly British. Aside from these select few, the unmarked Mute Swan’s fate falls solely in the hands of the ’Seigneur of Swans’, Queen Elizabeth II, who by prerogative right owns them all. The world’s longest reigning monarch has many niche rights unafforded to her subjects: in addition to the Mute Swan, she owns all dolphins, sturgeon and whales within twelve nautical miles of the island’s coastline, plus the British seabed itself; she may be drunk whilst in charge of cattle, illegal for everyone else; and since ‘criminal and civil proceedings cannot be taken against the Sovereign...under UK law’, the Queen’s privileges extend beyond the scope of this article. In truth, the island’s Monarchs have, since Athelstan, carved out laws unto themselves and extended those privileges to their husbands, wives, children and grandchildren, to both secure their own power and to make sure we do not forget it.

So, in 2017, some commentators around the country saw a Monarchic Crisis brewing when the demarcation lines between the crowned and uncrowned began to blur. In that year the Queen’s great-grandson, Prince George of Cambridge, began his education at one of the country’s top Independent Schools, St. Thomas Battersea, a short distance from Buckingham Palace. However, the boy who will be King arrived at his school not on horseback, but on foot. He was armed not with a Crown in one hand, scepter in the other, but a pencil case. He was adorned, not with a mantle of Mute Swans blustering in the breeze, but the school’s Uniform. How could the Prince sense his divine appointment with not even a gemstone in sight? How could a child-Regent be without regalia? And his classmates, the children who will one day be his Subjects, how could they fathom the auspiciousness of the future Rex Britannia when they shared every garment with the young prince, when every button and stich was similar and uniform?

The answer to this question and others like it has long been known but regularly forgotten: a school uniform has on overwhelmingly positive impact on our children’s education. In 1552, Christ’s Hospital School in England became the first school in the world to adopt a uniform for its pupils. Today, approaching half a millennium later, that uniform remains unchanged: a long blue coat and knee-high bright yellow socks. When surveyed in 2011 on whether they wanted to maintain this uniform, 95% of the student body said that they did. The reasons they gave to preserve a frankly ridiculous looking Renaissance outfit are echoed by other students, parents, teachers, Headmasters and Mistresses, scientists and Queens the world over: a clear dress code sets boundaries to help pupils to see the school as a working environment; attendance improves with uniforms; noise levels are lower; students listen better and a sense of pride, membership and identity is fostered, especially when the uniform is worn in public. In short, the pupils feel like part of a community, a collaborative network, and less like solitary figures competing for social approval, notifications and ‘Views’.

We, as their guardians, may remember that children are not young and wild and free because they have exclusive clothes or one-of-a-kind belt buckles, just as they will not be stifled and made unremarkable by appearing in the same attire as their classmates. In truth, they will have plenty of time to impress one another with the net worth of their wardrobes as they age, but until then they can, uniquely, afford to focus on learning languages, mastering instruments, employing logic, designing clothing, creating, building, experimenting and engaging with their surroundings, and spend a little less time worrying about the opinions of others.

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