The new school year’s a week old at most, but the inevitable annual fuss about uniform is already well underway. Indeed, even before term started, newspapers were running a story about schools revising their uniform policies to cover such challenges as transgender issues or girls wearing the niqab.
This week saw a North Tyneside School reported as putting 100 pupils in isolation for the day when (despite clear prior warnings, according to the head) they turned up for the start of term not wearing uniform correctly.
Uniform causes a great deal of trouble and work for schools: so, is it a blessing or a curse?
In theory, uniform identifies pupils with their school and is egalitarian. There’s no competition to be fashionable, nor (to the relief of parents) hours spent every morning in deciding what to wear. Uniform is, well, uniform.
Except it isn't. Once the 11-year-old’s pride in a new school uniform has worn off, teenagers can’t resist pushing the limits of uniform rules. There's the need to appear cool: so boys’ shirts must be untucked while ties (if worn) hang loose or tied with an absurdly large knot, leaving only a couple of inches of fabric dangling.
A girl’s skirt may be of regulation knee-length: but, on the way to school, she may roll the waistband over to satisfy the teenage requirement for mini-skirt length.
Why do we perpetuate this battleground? Many education systems operate satisfactorily without uniform: yet the British psyche connects the idea of educational standards indissolubly to a smartly worn uniform. The rare shining exceptions, schools that eschew uniform and provide a great education, are few: I’ve heard even some of those exceptions agonising about such issues as piercings.
There's a received wisdom that a school cannot be good if it’s not strong on uniform, and, in supporting that belief, schools are both saints and ogres. Parents applaud a tough stance…until their children fall foul of the rules. Then a school that dares to measure a girl’s skirt-length or judge a boy’s hairstyle is characterised as petty and bullying.
When it disciplines pupils, a media-storm ensues. Invariably, the pictures appear unremarkable: I tend to suspect the hair, skirt or footwear looked rather more outrageous when school staff first confronted it.
Schools enter a minefield when publishing uniform policies. Some schools have tied themselves in knots over accommodating the needs of transgender pupils: others have trumpeted their gender-blind regulations as a triumph. Meanwhile, primary schools permitting the niqab have found themselves accused of sexualising young girls, on the basis that the garment should be worn only post-puberty, and of denying them a choice.
I’m with the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who advises that schools shouldn't specify the niqab in their policies, instead inviting dialogue and flexibility. You can broaden that view to encompass many eventualities.
I've never been convinced of the claimed link between uniform and standards. However, I chose to play the same uniform game as everyone else, for fear of damaging my school’s standing.
Now out in the adult world (retirement), numerous former pupils probably still resent my inflexibility. I used to argue that my rules, such as forbidding boys to wear earrings or insisting shirts be tucked in and skirts be a certain length, mirrored formal adult dress codes. Nonetheless, in 2017, few employers require men to wear ties or ban earrings while, outside uniformed services, women have never worn ties or been constrained with regard to skirt, trousers, makeup or ear-piercings.
School uniform has more to do with public perception than with genuinely maintaining standards. Most benefits claimed for it could arguably be gained in other ways. But let’s be realistic: we’re stuck with it.
Nonetheless, perhaps we should be more open about these contradictions so that, when a school sticks to its guns on uniform, pupils, parents and the media might be slower to pillory the professionals who are just trying to do their job.
But then, that wouldn't be a story.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford
To read more columns, view his back catalogue
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