Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Universal Grey Remembered, 37 years On

 One of the interesting things about having an open door policy is that you don’t always know who you might get to meet from one day to the next. This week a number of our new students, all of whom appeared to be in a state of high anxiety, came to see me. The universal reason for their anxiety was not yet receiving their uniform. It seems that currently many of our students are experiencing difficulties getting hold of their Uniform from the supplier. The main supplier of our uniforms, and indeed nurses’ uniforms across the UK, went into administration earlier in the summer. Although the business was eventually rescued, the new business appears still to be struggling to play catch up with all the back log of orders. The consequence is that some of our students may not receive their uniforms before they go out to their first practice placements, hence the high levels of anxiety.

Bear with me for a minute, but until very recently, I had a framed poster hanging outside my office which I think explicitly captured and presented my thoughts about the uncritical pursuit of universality, homogeneity and the perverse nature of coercive specificity that is often the consequence. These are concepts epitomised by the notion of Uniforms.

The poster was moved in order to create a space to hang the gift of a fine carpet from colleagues in Pakistan. My intention is to hang the rug as a tribute to the truly magnificent work these colleagues are doing, not just in relation to the relief efforts following the recent floods, but in recognition of the unstinting work they are engaged in day after day with thousands of ordinary people across Sothern Pakistan who are suffering illness and distress.

However, I created the poster as a consequence of some work I had undertaken with two of the most influential people in my early academic career – Ian Stronach and Sheila Stark.

Together we wanted to change the face of education. It was this work that provided the foundation upon which my long term collaboration with Sue McAndrew was formed.

Sue and I continue to be concerned with the way mental health nurses are prepared for practice. A concept of preparation that’s as much about attitudes, values, and personal beliefs as it is about technical knowledge and skills.

However my preparation for becoming a nurse started off with being measured for a suit. In 1973, this was a crucial first step in my pre-registration training programme. One had to look the part, and grey two piece suits were what every aspiring male student was given to ensure they did. It was a dreadful and cheap piece of clothing that was meant to last the three years of training. When on the ward and doing real nursing male students were required to wear heavy long white coats. Somewhat strangely, female student nurse were given a bright yellow uniform to wear.

Until about 1972 most hospitals in the UK had their own style of uniform. For females this was usually designed around a traditional dress and starched apron. It was in the mid 70s that the Department of Health introduced the national uniform requirement for all NHS nurses. For females, this national uniform was originally intended to be worn as just the dress with no hat or belt, but as a result of protests by nurses, many hospitals continued to allow hats and belts.

However, whilst male nurses were stuck with their grey suits, female nurse uniforms changed. By now they were delicate shades of yellow, brown and blue check depending on your status. Unlike the shapeless grey suit, these new uniforms for women, continued to be distinctively feminine, allegedly promoting an air of comforting maternal authority. Ward Sisters almost universally refused the new check pattern, staying with the dark navy blue dress that can still be found today in many places.

By 1989, plastic disposable aprons replaced the traditional ones, caps were discarded. Dresses became more practical and, so I am told, more comfortable to wear, with ‘Action Pleats’ becoming the norm. It started to become popular to wear tunic and trouser sets. Indeed current BBC dramas such as Holby City and Casualty show nurses in tunics, and nurses in scrub vests and pants are seen in theatre and the wards. Interestingly, whilst on TV the familiar nurses uniform appears unpopular, with polo shirts and trousers often appearing to be the norm, when these were suggested as a temporary stop gap for our students, the idea was firmly rejected by many practice colleagues on the basis it would be unprofessional. I am not sure that wearing my grey suit, all those years ago really helped me understand what becoming and being a professional was really all about. Perhaps there is still a way to go with my preparation for practice project.