Will school uniform policies loosen up post-Covid?

From PE kit to hoodies and tracksuits, schools have been relaxing their dress codes of late, as they adapt to children’s changing circumstances. But will uniform policies loosen up for good? Emma Seith reports
8th January 2021, 12:05am
Coronavirus & Schools: Will Covid Mean The End Of School Uniforms?
Emma Seith


Will school uniform policies loosen up post-Covid?


Certain aspects of our education system are so ingrained that it can be hard to countenance doing things differently. An expert on assessment recently pointed out in an interview with Tes Scotland that when we hear how another country does exams - or does not do them - it can be quite shocking. Your mind is blown by the idea that there is another way of gauging the impact of an education - although now that exams have been cancelled two years running in Scotland, our notion of what counts as "normal" has, admittedly, shifted somewhat.

The same could be said for school uniform. While it may be the norm in Scotland, it is not usually a feature of schools in many other countries, where it's often seen as a peculiarly British quirk. But again, the coronavirus crisis may have eroded long-abided-by conventions. The pandemic has highlighted how school uniform can give pupils a sense of identity and community - remember that day in lockdown when pupils celebrated their schools by wearing their uniform? But it has also shown that learning does not suffer if a less-rigid approach is taken to pupils' attire.

Private school Lathallan, in the North East of Scotland, went from a strict uniform of smart trousers or kilts with shirts, ties and blazers to jogging bottoms and hoodies when pupils returned following lockdown, in an effort to cater for more outdoor learning.

More generally, pupils have become accustomed to wearing their PE kit to school to avoid having to get changed, while parents and teachers have extolled the benefits of doing so. Writing for Tes Scotland, Edinburgh P3 teacher Blair Minchin even suggested that the time saved in getting young children dressed for PE was actually helping him address the issue of learning loss. He hinted that we should perhaps be looking to ditch uniform altogether.

However, a school without a compulsory uniform policy remains a rare sight in Scotland, as University of Aberdeen school of education lecturer Rachel Shanks and a team of a dozen undergraduate students recently found. They undertook a review of the uniform policy of every secondary in Scotland - 357 schools in total - and uncovered that just 14 secondaries do not have a compulsory uniform: James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh, Hyndland Secondary in Glasgow and a collection of small island secondaries.

Shanks believes we stick with uniform out of habit as much as anything else - but she has a few other theories as to why it has become the norm among Scottish schools, including fee-paying schools' strict uniform policies creating a perception that it is "a mark that a school is good".

Think of Eton and its white ties, Harrow and its boaters, and the more recent attention Hill House School in London received for the cravats that are part of its uniform. That school found its dress policy in the spotlight after leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg posted a back-to-school picture of his children on social media in September.

Shanks even suggests that because the UK was not occupied by invading forces during the Second World War, we may not have developed the same aversion to uniform as our European counterparts.

However, some of the arguments that have been traditionally made in favour of uniform - like it being good preparation for the world of work - no longer stand up to scrutiny in an era when workplace dress codes have become less strict, she argues.

"When you think about the world of work, it's a lot less formal so there's that disparity now between how young people look in school and then how the rest of us are in the workplace. Because school uniform hasn't changed, there's a mismatch now between the two settings."

School uniform: Cutting your cloth for all

What can make a strict uniform policy even harder to justify is the failure to make it affordable - something that remains an issue in Scottish schools, despite a focus in recent years on the need to address the hidden costs of schooling.

Shanks and her team found that the blazer, which is often a particularly costly item, remains part of the uniform for two-thirds of Scottish secondary schools, and that roughly a fifth - or 70 out of 357 schools - specified a supplier, something that is blamed for pushing up costs for families.

In Wales, as of September 2019, schools became legally obliged to consider cost when setting their uniform - as well as whether their uniforms were accessible and gender neutral. This means that, for instance, items such as trousers should not be described as "for boys", and schools are also told that costly items such as blazers and caps should be avoided.

In England, new legislation aims to address the issue of affordability. The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in February last year by Labour MP Mike Amesbury. Amesbury says the bill would make it a legal requirement for schools to put affordability first when setting their uniform policy, and would end "single-supplier monopolies that push up prices and limit family choice".

Shanks would like to see statutory guidance introduced in Scotland, too - with affordability the top priority - to bring the country into line with Wales. She says that the guidance should also require "regular reviews of exclusive supply arrangements of school-uniform items in order to reduce the cost of the school uniform".

Generally speaking, Shanks is supportive of school uniform but believes there should be a move away from blazers and ties towards more everyday clothing items. She suggests that instead of using ties and branded items, the colour of pupils' jumpers could be used to differentiate between schools.

Shanks says: "When we look at all the months that young people were at home during lockdown, and now quite often they are wearing PE kit to school, are we really saying their learning is affected by the one-in-five days that they are in their PE kit?

"So it's really about thinking, do we need those expensive items like blazers and ties? And could we go to more generic items - as in Wales - where there's maybe a colour for a jumper and a colour for trousers? And do we need to ban things like trainers?"

According to Sara Spencer, views on school uniform among families are mixed. During her time leading the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, in a project to reduce the cost of the school day, she has heard often conflicting opinions. Spencer has been told that uniform helps to minimise income differences, but also that it exacerbates them; that it reduces clothing costs, but also that it increases cost pressures on families; that it is important for school identity and a sense of pride, but also that it does not matter and has nothing to do with the learning.

However, there are a few things we can be sure of, she says, including that uniform matters to young people and they notice what is being worn; that it can be difficult or impossible for families to afford - and that it does not have to be that way.

Clothing grants in Scotland are now set at a minimum of £100, a change introduced by the Scottish government in 2018. Shanks and her team found that nine authorities provide more than the minimum clothing grant, with one council providing £145.

However, while government guidance indicates that the clothing grant should be awarded automatically when other benefits are applied, this only happened in six councils, the researchers found. And government guidance designed to ensure that clothing grants should automatically roll over to the following school year - to save families having to reapply - was only followed in nine councils. Just one council followed both government recommendations.

It is also important to bear in mind, says Spencer, that clothing grants are only available to the families on the very lowest incomes; they are unlikely to cover all of the costs that parents incur from ripped trousers and worn-through shoes. School bags need to be bought, too, not to mention outdoor clothing and PE kit.

Uniform rethinking

The best way for schools to ensure uniform is affordable is to engage with their communities to see how families think things could be made easier, she says. Spencer, like Shanks, suggests simplifying colours and removing logos, and points out that a Glasgow school shaved £60 off the cost of its blazer just by changing supplier. There is also the example of Port Glasgow High School in Inverclyde, where most senior pupils hire a blazer for just £5, as opposed to buying one.

What struck Shanks and her team when looking through school-uniform policies was that they often contained more directives aimed at female pupils relating, for example, to how long skirts should be, or demands that midriffs are not exposed. The researchers also picked up on the kind of language that is sometimes used when talking about how girls should dress - they are told to have an eye on "decency" and "modesty", notes Shanks.

"Obviously, there are people in post looking at tackling gender stereotyping in education," she says. "It may be that uniform is a bit forgotten and that the curriculum is seen as being more important. But it seems that girls are having to police themselves and look at themselves and ask, 'Am I decent?', 'Am I modest?' It is a worry."

Shanks and her team also found virtually no reference to transgender pupils in the policies, but did find a school that specified in what order pupils should put on their clothes. "It had to be the shirt, then the jumper, then the blazer," she says. "We could only think that something had happened in the school - some sort of mini-protest - that involved the pupils wearing their jumper over their blazer, or something."

Shanks was also struck by the sheer number of things that were banned: leggings, jeggings, jeans, hooped earrings, facial jewellery, hooded tops, loose clothing, caps, hats, scarves, items with logos, items with logos larger than the school logo, football colours, shell suits.

Secondary headteacher Alison Reid has some sympathy with the banning of shell suits, which gained notoriety in the 1980s for being flammable. She points out that they are not a good idea in a secondary when you're likely to be working with cookers and Bunsen burners. Flammable clothing was on the banned list at her school - Westhill Academy in Aberdeenshire - before it introduced a uniform for the first time in 2018, almost 40 years after it opened in 1979.

Reid says the impetus for the introduction of the uniform very much came from the pupils, parents and the wider school community, with her appointment the year before as head viewed as an opportunity to revisit the issue: "What we were hearing was that the pupils felt set apart from their peers at other local schools and they particularly noticed it when they were with those peers representing their school at events because they were the only school - state or independent - that did not have a uniform. They felt that they stood out, and not in a good way."

There was also an appetite, she says, to remove the pressure of deciding on a different outfit every day: "That was a strong opinion from parents and carers, about the perceived pressure to have different things to wear all the time."

The pupils segued seamlessly into the new regime, which was preceded by them all being set the task of learning to knot a tie over the summer holidays.

At Westhill, they now have a blazer, which is popular but not compulsory. There is also a tie - but Reid points out that it costs just £6 and could potentially last all the way through school. Parents can buy branded jumpers, but there is no obligation, and badges are also available to sew or iron on.

"I don't know that you can draw a direct line between attainment and uniform, but I think it is linked to ethos and community, and a sense of pride young people have collectively," she says. "It gives a sense of unity."

After the back-to-school photograph of the five eldest Rees-Moggs kitted out in shorts, tank tops and - of course - cravats went viral, the head of Hill House School, Richard Townend, wrote a piece for Tes explaining that the school's uniform had been designed by his mother to be "inexpensive and easy to maintain". There was no jacket nor long trousers, which could be "phenomenally expensive" to buy, he said. As for the cravats, he argued that they "cost a fiver" and were "easy to maintain and put on" - unlike ties, which were "very complicated to put on for young children". He also said that because shorts were worn to school, younger pupils did not need a separate PE kit.

According to Spencer, all school-uniform options are possible - whether blazers, ties or cravats - as long as schools consult with their communities and have an eye to the cost.

"You don't have to compromise on what your uniform looks like if you are willing to think about creative ways to go about providing it," she says. "So, you want a blazer? OK, how are you going to make sure everyone has one without putting pressure on families? That's the challenge."

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue of Tes Scotland

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