Lack of a Uniform Belief

I’m a genuine agnostic on school uniform. I wore a uniform at school, and I have always taught in schools with a uniform. It’s pretty common in England. But I’m also aware of another world in which people get to choose their own clothes (amazing!); my children watch endless US teen shows in which students never wear uniforms, and I understand many places in Europe eschew uniforms. The sky doesn’t fall in when kids wear jeans in classrooms, but nor do children start emulating delegates at a North Korean communist party conference just because they’re all forced to wear nasty grey jumpers.

I see the reasonableness of the argument that uniforms might reduce (but never eliminate) the potential for income-based bullying, although I think the days when the boys who had Lacoste crocodiles on their jumpers were able to take the piss out of boys who didn’t, have long been replaced by those with iPhones taking the mickey out of those without (although my teenage scars have not yet fully healed from being nicknamed “The St Michaels Kid” because of my mother’s addiction to Marks&Spencers). I also accept that it’s possible to have a uniform policy which isn’t oppressive, prejudiced against poorer families, or just mad http://littlemavis.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/are-we-uniform/

Likewise, I accept the argument that a uniform is a method of insisting on conformity and discouraging individuality, and so I’m instinctively inclined against it on principle. I also note that the evidence base for the many claims made on behalf of uniforms is rather thin.  http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/articles/article/uniforms-for-learning

And I’m not going to go anywhere near the issue about boys and girls distracting each other unless they’re covered up properly, which has created a furore in the States this last year or so. Suffice it to say that, if I recall correctly, you could have dressed all the girls in my class in full burqas when I was 15 and I would have still been distracted by them. Such are teenage hormones.

Fundamentally, I don’t really care much. It’s just not an issue which is in my top ten things to be bothered by in a school. Perhaps not even the top twenty. So generally I file uniforms into the “can’t be bothered enough to get worked up” category of stuff.

Astonishing degrees of crashing idiocy

Then, something like this comes along :

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-29911712

This is not the first story of its kind this year. There were very similar stories from the Isle of Wight, and from Essex prior to this. And this DOES get me worked up. Not because of what these stories say about uniform policy, but because of what these stories say about the schools which do this, and the idiotic culture which provides certain types of autocratic personalities masquerading as teachers with the cover they need to indulge their inner Gestapo officer.

Can you guess which side I’m sympathetic to yet ?

If the cap fits, wear it (at a rakish angle)

Let me be clear : I am not arguing against uniforms. If you want one, fine. As I said above, I’ve seen arguments which seem reasonable, if not much in the way of evidence of impact. Likewise, I am not arguing against enforcing a uniform policy. I do see the value in the idea of a uniform as an area where students can practice their growing independence by pushing against harmless rules, as opposed to committing serious misdemeanours. But I also think the flip side of this is that uniform rules can teach you that, if you get caught, you have to take the punishment. So by all means use the wide and varied range of sanctions which are available in schools : detentions, lines, scraping chewing gum off tables, even making the buggers wear some horrible dayglo cardigan over their errant uniform.

However, before Hanson Academy decision-makers think I’m backing up their ridiculous stance, there are some “buts” coming :

Are you adding humiliation to embarrassment ?

Make damn sure that you have ensured that the children in question are out of uniform by choice, and not because their parents are too poor, or have too many difficulties, to put them in your very specific and hopefully not overly expensive – yes Toby Young, I’m looking at YOU there – uniform. Because that child is already being punished by his embarrassment at being different from his classmates, and if the school then heaps additional punishment on that child simply for his background circumstances, then that school would be disgusting.

The punishment needs to be proportional.

Knowing the sort of self-important, power-tripping would-be-Wilshaws behind events such as this, I can almost guarantee that the schools in question have a “ethos of high standards” and “mission statements” full of robust-sounding jargon about “no excuses culture”, including a tough stance on attendance, a “ relentless commitment to learning” and “progress in every lesson” and so, tediously, on. Yet here, what message are these types of schools giving to all those students they send home for uniform violations ? Well, there are several :

– What you wear is more important than coming to school;

– Superficial conformity is more important than actual learning;

– Your shoes are more important than your classroom; and

– You are not coming here for your own benefit, you are coming here for MY benefit.

In the name of God, are these sanctimonious, hemline-obsessed nutters so bloody stupid that they cannot see the clear contradiction between, on the one hand, telling students that nothing is more important than the right attitude to their own learning, that school is there to help them learn, and that attendance and effort in class is a key part of that education. Then, on the other hand, preventing them from even entering a classroom because of the shape of their earrings ?

This is why we have detentions and contact books and lines and extra work, for Pete’s sake! By sending them home from school, you are putting wearing slightly different clothes on the same level as an exclusion for punching a fellow student in the face. That is beyond stupid. It’s so far beyond stupid that it needs to go to a Special School For Irredeemably Stupid Policies (headteacher : M Gove).

The message you’re “sending out”, isn’t the message you think it is.

I know very well what’s behind this: the way these heads justify this to themselves is they think it “sends out a message” that they are committed to “standards”  (“standards”, in this case, meaning “desire to dress children as if it was still 1953 because that’s the last time the headteacher had an original thought about education).

You can see it in the head’s quote here from the story above :

“They were sent home to change and the majority rectified this immediately and returned to school ready to learn.”

Apparently, the headteacher here cannot distinguish between what colour a child’s hair is, and whether she is “ready to learn”. Clue : being “ready to learn” has nothing to do with hair dye. I genuinely fear for kids educated in a school led by a head who thinks that the most important factor in being “ready to learn” is compliance with an arbitrary code of appearance. If I decided that I wasn’t going to teach anyone who didn’t come into my classroom wearing a clown nose and a snorkel, would that mean that those students without comedy appendages were not “ready to learn” ?  Good Grief ! Does this head not consider that, just possibly, the students were demonstrating that they were “ready to learn” by turning up at school, and her decision to deny them the right to be educated that day on the grounds that their only warm coat on a cold day was the wrong colour, suggests not that they weren’t ready to learn, but that she is not ready to teach them ?

No, in such cases the message I’d receive as either a child, or as a parent, would be that the school is run by a small-minded control-freak so scared by their own responsibility that they obsess about easy things they can control, like uniform, rather than obsessing about hard things which they can’t control, but need to work at, like trying to help children learn. They place the material my trousers are made of higher in their list of priorities than whether I’ve read a book today. They place the eradication of any individuality on my part over everything else in education, because they’d rather I did not learn anything at all than learned something while wearing the wrong shade of shoe leather.

When one child breaks a rule, it’s the child’s responsibility; but when a hundred children break a rule, it’s your responsibility.

It doesn’t matter what the issue is, but if you’re sending hundreds of students home on the same day for the same offence, then you are a bad headteacher. You’re bad because of all the reasons listed above about putting conformity ahead of learning, disproportionality of response, and going on gratuitous and pointless willy-waving power-trips. But you’re also useless because you have quite clearly failed to communicate expectations to both your students and their parents. You have failed to establish a working relationship with a huge proportion of your student body and their parents. You have managed to get yourself into a situation where you are causing hundreds of your students and their parents undue anxiety, distress and expense. You have established a policy so ridiculously petty and restrictive that hundreds of parents and children consider it unreasonable. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think your crusade for conformity is justified – the very fact that you’ve failed to take so many parents and students along with you is testimony to your incompetence.

Wilshaw, it has to be…

Can I blame Wilshaw ? Go on, can I ? Yes, I think I can. It is surely not coincidental that we are seeing these ridiculous events at a time when Wilshaw has been pushing the Cult of the Great Leader idea, in which the role of the Headteacher is to tell everyone what to do and make sure they bloody well do it. In which “leadership” is synonymous with “dictatorship”, and in which crushing conformity amongst staff and students is the apparent mark of a “well-ordered” and effective school.

Get a grip, uniform police. You’re ridiculous.

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9 thoughts on “Lack of a Uniform Belief

  1. So let me get this straight – you don’t really care one way or the other about uniform, but when it’s enforced properly, you have a problem with it?

    It’s possible the school has had historic issues with uniform (any school that is struggling will have issues with uniform as it’s the easiest rule to break) so any sanctions will affect a large number of students.

    The notion that a sanction carried out that affects a large number of students is somehow a symptom of poor leadership is, quite frankly, laughable. In schools that I have worked in, there has been plenty of literature and information before Y7 students start. Some kids still come in wearing trainers, girls wearing skirts that are too shirt, no tie etc. Letting students come into school without the correct uniform is telling pupils that rules don’t matter.

    If a school really wants to sort out uniform, how else are they supposed to do it? What would you do?

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    • I think you need to read it again. I do actually say that I don’t have a problem with schools having uniforms, and I also say that I don’t have a problem with uniforms being enforced. The key difference between my view and what has gone on in Leeds (and elsewhere) is :

      (a) I think a school which places such a high priority on uniform has lost sight of its real purpose, which is to educate, not to dress, students. It’s a bizarre priority to have when there are so many others;

      (b) like all school rules, sanctions should be proportionate to the offence. Sending students home is effectively the same sanction as an exclusion. That is insanely disproportionate when there are so many other sanctions available; and

      (c) the mass exclusion of hundreds of students for uniform violations is not about uniform at all. It’s about a show of force and control, and the school in question is thus prioritising its own institutional ego (or the head’s individual one) over the right of those students to the education to which they are entitled.

      So how would I deal with it ?

      1) I would barely care in the first place. I find it a circular argument to say “we are strictly enforcing an incredibly restrictive uniform code on our students”, and then follow that up with “there’s loads of students breaching our code – we must do something about it, preferably by being even stricter in its enforcement”. You say “this school may have had historic uniform issues”. But if so, why then choose a uniform code which is clearly going to create enormous discord with a large proportion of their students and parents ? It’s bizarre.

      2) I would devise a uniform code which was easy to follow and met whatever goals I wanted it to meet, but not so ridiculously restrictive that it was going to waste my staff’s time checking up on irrelevant superficial minutiae. There’s a link to one such set of principles up at the top of the blog. If a rule is so ridiculous that hundreds of your students breach it in minor and meaningless ways, then it’s the rule which is out of place, not the students. For example, why do some schools impose a uniform code which dictates what shape of earrings students can wear, or the colour of their hair ? What has that got to do with their learning, or the school ? Nothing. It’s just exercising control for control’s sake, and I have no sympathy with it or the institution which imposes it.

      3) If I was determined to enforce a uniform code, I’d use one of the dozens of other proportionate sanctions available to me, none of which would disrupt the students’ learning. Thus demonstrating that, while the student should follow the rules, the school prioritizes their education more highly than their compliance with superficial identity.

      4) I’d advocate reasonable tolerance of minor breaches. If a kid comes in wearing a onesie, then sure, detention and a phone call home. But if a kid comes in with – gasp, shock – a slightly lighter shade of blue coat, or odd socks, then, really, if that’s the extent of their teenage rebellion, well done them. It’s an absolute waste of the school’s time and their time to bother with that.

      There may well be people – either students or teachers – who think that every child should be dressed identically, and nobody should have even the slightest avenue for self-expression or autonomy. I just wish they’d go and join the army, rather than make the rest of our lives miserable in schools with their obsessive desire to dictate to other people for no relevant purpose.

      As for those who argue the “slippery slope” case : “If you let them wear a hooped earring today, they’ll be smoking crack in the toilets tomorrow”, then I’m afraid I’ll just have to agree to differ with them. I’m not as scared of my students’ individuality as they clearly are of their students.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another excellent blog again and I thought the head came across as somewhat defensive when pushed on link between uniform and learning. The school has been in special measures therefore improving the consistency of the uniform equals improvement – nonsense cubed.

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  3. I think a lot of the heads watch what happens at the public schools and think ‘if we make them wear elizabethan bee keeping outfits as a school uniform they will do well in life’ idiocy pure idiocy

    Liked by 1 person

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