It’s been peak silly season this year as we wind down to the summer holidays. Edu-land has been captured by the World Cup (if my sources are to be believed, football’s coming home), Love Island and school uniform.
We’ve had the unlikely sight of a Department for Education FE policy adviser hoping to find love in the Mallorcan sun under the gaze of 69 cameras and a few million viewers. Astonishingly, Zara McDermott didn’t use her time on reality TV show Love Island to explain the government’s apprenticeship policy to a grateful nation.
Instead, she said she had to dumb down the explanation of her job so that people could understand it. What it boiled down to was that “we write legislation and stuff”.
Now that’s a great mission statement for the DfE. I expect to see it taped above the roll call of former education secretaries the next time I visit Sanctuary Buildings.
Then, of course, there was the inevitable school uniform story that always marks more than three days of consecutive hot weather in England.
It is a big, big story. Apparently, at least 40 schools (out of some 23,000) have now stopped girls from wearing skirts as part of their school uniform because some people think they are immodest and also to provide a gender-neutral uniform to cater for transgender pupils.
It’s a story that’s kept the airwaves ablaze all week. One commentator said a ban on skirts in schools sounded like “a totalitarian state order”, while feminists condemned it as “silly” and parents said it was “crackers”. And all the while, it was poor old teachers who took the blame for it all when they are only the enforcers of a CEO or headteacher’s decision.
Meanwhile, on social media, there were reports of schools so terrified of a repeat of last summer’s uniform storm when boys not allowed to wear shorts in hot weather took to wearing skirts that they insisted that all skirts had to be worn with tights.
We are a nation obsessed with school uniform. I have no idea why. Other countries don’t have them and seem to do just fine. The Education Endowment Foundation’s analysis of research found no robust evidence that uniform would by itself improve academic performance, behaviour or attendance.
We persuade ourselves that uniform is an equaliser – everyone looks the same and there’s no fashion one-upmanship – and that it prepares children for the workplace.
Anyone who has ever met a teenager knows they always find a way to circumvent the first and the second is true only if we’re preparing all of our children for a job in Asda. And should you introduce a trouser-only policy, you can bet your house on all those skirt-shunning girls suddenly deciding that a skirt is the only thing they want to wear.
Getting everyone to wear the same outfit would, naturally, solve many problems. But a gender-neutral uniform of trousers for all is the right idea at the wrong time. Linking it with female modesty is offensive – if men can’t cope with seeing a bit of bare underage leg on display in summer, that’s their problem, not the girls’. And linking it to transgender rights will always be problematic: no policy can ever succeed if it is used to curtail the rights of one (still) disadvantaged group to benefit those of another.
Those schools desperate to bring in trousers for all should try again in winter when at least there’s the excuse of keeping everyone warm.
Or there is, obviously, another option: allow both boys and girls to wear skirts when it’s hot. And if you think that sounds far-fetched, just think: if I’d said this time last year that a DfE civil servant would be on a reality TV show, or that England would win a World Cup penalty shoot-out, few would have believed me. After all, these sorts of things seem fantastical – until they happen.