School uniform: Why we must treat children like adults

Denying pupils' agency with super-strict rules around uniform isn't healthy, says Jarlath O'Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

School uniform: Why we must treat children like adults

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and tabloid newspapers in September running stories about legions of children being sent home from some English secondary schools for uniform infringements.

We can all picture it: a photo of a crestfallen child on their sofa dressed in the offending uniform, sat next to an irate parent, a comment from the school explaining its rules and the ensuing social media bunfight among two groups of teachers: “School has rules” vs “Does it really matter if trousers are Harrow grey or charcoal grey?”

Somewhere in the discussion it will be suggested that teachers don’t have to wear a uniform, so it is unfair or hypocritical for us to impose rules on children that we aren’t following ourselves. 

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This is a weak argument for a number of reasons. It is entirely right and proper that our workplace expectations and rules for the adults in the building are different from the expectations and rules for the children. Dress code for the adults, uniform for the children. Fine. 

What is not fine, though, is where we hold children to a higher standard than adults. We may do this in a number of ways. We may set the threshold for the children for what is unacceptable to be so low that it is very easy to get into trouble. Not maintaining eye contact with a teacher, for example, or having a disruptive or extreme haircut (no, me neither). Saying "OK" when told off would be one that I would fall foul of all the time. Not having a branded skirt spells trouble, even if the skirt the child is wearing is fine. Getting into bother for something that is not disruptive or that is actually normal ignites children’s sense of injustice.

The problem with strict rules on school uniform

Time for a confession. When I taught physics in a comprehensive, our rule was that the children had to have their blazer on at all times. I regularly allowed children to flout this rule for one good reason. Sometimes my lab was really hot. Sometimes I took my own suit jacket off to regulate my own body temperature like a normal human being. It seemed perverse of me to deny my students the same opportunity, especially as it might make learning harder if they were uncomfortable. I am pleased to confirm that the act of blazer removal did not turn out to be the signal that they were all looking for to storm the Bastille. I reject any suggestion that my expectations of those children were too low.  

You may well defend holding children to a higher standard than adults with the claim that any non-compliance of any rule is in itself a bad thing. But for some children this will mean that they spend time and nervous energy hyper-policing themselves to ensure that they do not get into trouble. This is not conducive to being in a good place for learning. These students are extrinsically motivated by following rules, even ones that seem petty or futile. This works up to a point, and then the desire to break the rule to show those in authority just how ridiculous their rule is kicks in. 

Removal of as much agency as possible – complexity reduction, as Gert Biesta calls it – is seductive, but, in my view, not healthy, and it is one of the reasons why I cannot bring myself to like silent corridors. And how often do we discuss agency when it comes to behaviour policies anyway? It is, in my view, an under-discussed topic in schools.

No one disputes the need for rules, but over-restriction leads to a claustrophobia amongst the students, which, in the short term, leads to resentment, and, in the longer term, directly contradicts the stated aims of most schools to develop independent, and independent-minded, adults.    

"If they don’t like it, they can find another school" will be another response in September when the tabloids splash those uniform stories. This denies that very few parents or children truly decide where they go to school, choice being an illusion in most of the country. 

We’re well paid, well trained, fully developed, professional adults. They are still developing children. Far better to model what we want from them, provide them with some agency and see them flourish into the people they want to become.

Jarlath O'Brien works for a local authority and is the author of Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers and Leading Better Behaviour - A Guide for School Leaders

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