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Burning beacon for progress, or just window dressing?

Updated guidance on uniforms was issued by the Government last week. But should schools impose dress codes on pupils at all? Irena Barker reports on the pros and cons

BRITISH SCHOOLS have had a long love-hate relationship with uniforms. While the French ditched schoolboy smocks and berets in the 1960s, we never gave up attempting to standardise our unruly youth.

And unruly they can be: Year 11s at Abertillery Comprehensive in Gwent, south Wales, recently burned a blazer in protest at the introduction of new uniforms.

But this potential for opposition has not stopped a trend in state schools towards a much smarter look. The sweatshirts adopted by comprehensive schools in the 1980s are giving way to blazers and ties.

New academies in tough areas with poor academic performance are attracted by the role uniforms have to play in establishing a school "brand". They can also be a useful tool in wooing parents.

The Conservatives recently called for a return to school blazers in an indirect bid to boost performance.

"It's a corporate identity that kids buy into," said David Kennedy, head of John Warner School in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, where blazers are worn. "Staff here who attended this school when it went to pot in the late 1980s say the uniform went to pot as well."

John Franklin, headteacher of Christ's Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex, says its pupils' distinctive heavy woollen coats, yellow socks and breeches give them a "sense of shared adversity".

In primaries, uniform is generally imposed for practical reasons and to create a sense of belonging.

The Government encourages schools to have uniform to "set an appropriate tone" and ensure racial and social cohesion. Across the UK, 85 per cent of all schools, rising to 98 per cent of secondaries, have uniform.

But as society becomes more diverse, the uniform boom has created huge debate. Religious expression is the most sensitive area, garnering headlines with high profile court cases such as that of Shabina Begum, the Muslim girl who challenged her school for the right to wear a jilbab gown. After endless legal wrangling, the school, Denbigh High in Luton, Bedfordshire, won the right to refuse pupils permission to wear it.

New government guidelines say a policy that restricts the freedom of pupils to manifest their religion may still be lawful. For example, a school can say it is unacceptable for a girl to wear a veil at school if it needs to identify her for security reasons. A teacher may also require to see a pupil's face to "judge their engagement with learning".

The guidelines published last week say careful consideration should be given to religious groups when setting uniform policy, such as developing a shalwaar kameez (loose trousers and tunic) in school colours for Muslim girls.

Schools must also consider how their uniform policy can cause indirect discrimination. Banning cornrow hairstyles, common in African and Afro Caribbean cultures, could constitute racial discrimination.

There is the issue of cost, too. The Office for Fair Trading, which can fine schools for having overpriced uniforms, last year found some parents were collectively pound;45 million worse off due to schools restricting uniform sales to particular shops.

The Government, keen to counter accusations that schools exercise "covert selection" through expensive uniforms, has urged them to make sure they are easily available from high street stores.

Poorer families should also be made aware of the uniform grants available, without it being embarrassing for them to ask for help.

At John Warner School, parent governors are charged with reviewing the cost of the uniform every year to make sure it has not risen out of reach of the poorest families. The shirts, trousers and skirts are available cheaply in supermarkets.

Once a uniform policy has been decided, how should it be enforced? At Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London, a boy was kept out of mainstream classes for a week for wearing black suede shoes. Should pupils be sent home or excluded for infractions of the code?

Government guidance says no, unless a child is "persistent and defiant" in their behaviour. Heads should also think twice about sending pupils home to change for longer than is necessary, as it may amount to an unofficial exclusion.

Many schools build flexibility into their uniform policy. At Durham Johnston Comprehensive, staff find a "less is more" approach is most effective. Jewellery and piercings are banned but there are no strict rules on hair, so pupils can express themselves.

Carolyn Roberts, the headteacher, says: "We have a very straightforward and simple policy.

"I think whatever you go for, the most important thing is to enforce the rules you have set. Otherwise, what does that say about all the other policies in your school?

"We don't find pupils abuse the freedoms we give them, but if a pupil turned up to school with a shaven head and a swastika emblazoned across it, it would be dealt with under our anti-racism policy."

Mrs Roberts says that although she was not entirely convinced that a uniform is essential for a good school, it was part of the image and tradition of Durham Johnston.

There are of course schools who are proud not to impose uniform. Fortismere Secondary, a highly successful school in Muswell Hill, north London, feels no need for its pupils to look the same. Aydin Onac, the headteacher, says the idea of uniform is the "antithesis" to what education should be.

"We try to nurture and develop the individual," he says, "but we do encourage them to dress sensibly and take responsibility for the way they look.

"I passionately believe that uniform has nothing to do with real educational values.

"Without it, we have the chance to focus on more key issues. And the outcomes at the school speak for themselves."


* Consult widely on proposed uniform policies and changes to established policies. Take in representatives of different groups in the wider community. Document the consultation process; weighing up competing points of view.

* Schools are not obliged to allow religious dress, such as Muslim veils, if wearing them conflicts with health and safety, security, teaching or learning.

* Governing bodies can use their own purchasing power to buy uniforms in bulk and pass savings on to parents, but must not see this as a fundraising opportunity.

* If a child is sent home from school for an infraction of the uniform policy, it could count as an unofficial exclusion if it is longer than necessary.

* Governors should consider the benefits of introducing light colours or reflective materials into uniform to help pupils walk and cycle to school safely.


The clever way to get pupils looking smart

Gareth Dawkins (below), headteacher of Bradford Academy, which moved into bright new premises last month, feels the key to an effective uniform policy was allowing the pupils to be involved in creating it.

An electoral college voting system was used to allow pupils, staff and parents a say in the design, which was put together from options developed by a uniform company.

The smart new blazers, ties and logo have given the pupils more than half of whom are entitled to free school meals a new sense of distinction and class, Mr Dawkins says. "The buy-in has been massive."

The cheap sweatshirts of the predecessor school, Bradford Cathedral Community College, did nothing to instil any sense of pride.

"It is so much easier to enforce the rules when pupils have had a voice in the uniform they are wearing," Mr Dawkins says.

Pupils are allowed to express themselves further by wearing their hair as they want, and the only rule on jewellery is that it is "not too outrageous". Many pupils have a penchant for "bling," he says, so it is not always easy to keep to this rule.

In developing the uniform, the school has been very careful not to allow any pupils to be left out. The school has about 40 wheelchair users and the uniform has been specially adapted to their individual needs.

And a laundry service is provided for a number of pupils who need it because of their home circumstances.

Photographs: Guzelian

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