I spend a lot of time at the Association of School and College Leaders wrestling with weighty topics. This week alone our council members have been debating how to close the attainment gap between rich and poor that blights our education system. We’ve developed proposals to reconfigure performance tables and inspection so they feel less punitive and stigmatising. We’ve looked at how technology might improve learning for pupils while reducing workload for teachers.
But it is good also to be reminded of the nitty-gritty stuff of school life, the things that matter on the ground to both parents and pupils.
A case in point was this week’s story about the government’s backing for a bill aimed at bringing down the cost of school uniforms.
Ah, yes, school uniforms. It’s perhaps only once you step out of day-to-day life in a school that you realise quite how much time you have spent fixating on colours of sock, length of skirts and types of shoes.
And, more specifically, how much of the discourse has been about blazers. Because it is these surprisingly controversial items of clothing that are symbolic of a wider issue.
Out there in the wider world, blazers are, for most people, probably a symbol of a dress code associated with golf or rugby dinners, something hardly relevant to everyday life.
The school uniform debate
That’s not the case in many parts of education.
To begin at the beginning, this story started with a private members’ bill from Labour MP Mike Amesbury, which, as I understand it, would put into law some existing Department for Education guidance.
This is what the guidance says on the subject of cost:
“When considering how the school uniform should be sourced, governing bodies should give highest priority to the consideration of cost and value for money for parents. The school uniform should be easily available for parents to purchase and schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply, for example in a supermarket or other good value shop. Schools should keep compulsory branded items to a minimum and avoid specifying expensive items of uniform – eg, expensive outdoor coats.”
As far as it goes, this is eminently sensible. The problematic part is how it is interpreted. How many branded items are acceptable, for example, and how much should they cost?
Which brings us back to the subject of blazers.
I would hazard a guess that in most schools every other item of clothing – trousers, shirts, jumpers, etc – can be bought in a local supermarket. Or at least, if something like a jumper is branded, it is relatively inexpensive.
And having a school uniform makes sense in many respects. It establishes a common standard, prevents school life from becoming a fashion parade, and is a visible symbol of a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
In terms of cost, it is difficult to see there can be any real objection, given that parents have to buy clothes for their children in any case. Indeed, it arguably takes away the stigma of a family not being able to afford the latest on-trend items.
A blazer of glory?
But blazers with an embroidered school badge are a different matter. They tend to be more expensive than other clothing items, have to be renewed on a fairly regular basis as the child grows, and cannot be used outside of school time as, say, a pair of grey socks might be.
They won’t be the only bone of contention. There is also the issue of sports kit, although once again any sporting activity is likely to involve some sort of financial outlay, whether it takes place in school or not.
Blazers, on the other hand, exist only for a single purpose in a single context.
They are also popular with schools. Admittedly, I haven’t collected data on this, but, anecdotally at least, they seem to be widespread – a key feature of many parts of the UK’s education system, symbolic, too, of its traditions.
Why might this be the case?
Purely speculatively, it could be that where schools are under new ownership – as happens on a regular basis in our education system – and the new administration is keen to establish a sense of pride in a new identity, then requiring a branded blazer seems logical.
Remember also that these are schools that will often face a very high degree of challenge. And where this involves difficult behaviour and disengagement among some pupils, uniform is one way of establishing a clear set of rules and standards.
This won’t be the only reason why blazers are ubiquitous, of course. But it might go some way to explaining why an item of clothing that in many ways seems anachronistic – with its connotations of a bygone era – continues to be a fairly common feature of a modern education system.
None of this is meant to suggest that requiring a blazer runs contrary to the government guidance. As already pointed out, the guidance doesn’t go into those sort of specifics, and having a single branded item does not seem particularly outrageous. But it may, nevertheless, be a cause of friction between parents and schools.
Me – I’m not going to come down here for blazers or against them. It doesn’t matter what I think.
But what I am "for" is the ability of school leaders and governing bodies to make operational decisions based on their best judgement, free from a constant stream of naysaying from commentators.
And, frankly, if these leaders and their governors manage to achieve their most important task – to improve the outcomes of their pupils – then a branded blazer does not seem a particularly big deal.
But by the same token, while this might not be the most pressing issue in our in-trays compared to the likes of Ofsted inspections, the funding crisis and a desperate shortage of teachers, "blazergate" obviously matters to many parents.
The ongoing debate about school uniform may, therefore, be a good moment for us to test our thinking, especially as expectations shift beyond the school gates about how we dress and how we present ourselves.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton