Beyond the blazers

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
There are far more pressing issues facing Scottish schools than the hoary old chestnut of bringing back uniforms, says Marion McDonald

Dreary old arguments about whether we should return to blazers and a more formal school uniform have nothing to do with education. Newspaper and television pictures of pupils wearing smart uniform give the totally false impression that getting them all back into shirts and ties would sort out this difficult younger generation.

The reality is much more difficult, much more expensive, but ultimately much more interesting. There is nothing wrong with the wearing of school uniform per se (yes, I'm old enough to have done my Higher Latin). What makes me angry is the way we pretend it's important. What is important is how we treat each other and how we learn.

Conformity in dress does not necessarily signify a brain working well and creatively. Some of the cleverest and most original pupils I have taught have chosen to dress in a quite bizarre and unconventional way, but they were a joy to work with and got great results.

Let us be honest about this. Making children wear uniform is about appearances. It can foster a sense of identity and tradition and it can help prevent the wearing of inappropriate clothes to school. It can also help with the school's public image, ever more important in these days of league tables and parent choice.

However, it does not in itself make a successful school. Let's admit that, agree a uniform policy (or not) in consultation with pupils and parents, then move swiftly on to the interesting and exciting issues we are facing today in Scottish schools.

So, leaving the blazers and ties aside, what could we talk about? Here are my suggestions. Try them on your children, or use them to spice up an interview at parents' night.

* Teacher shortage - The single most important thing that affects your child's learning is good teaching. Recently, there have been real improvements in Scotland's teacher training, and in particular the support offered to probationer teachers.

However, there are critical problems over supply cover and teacher shortage. All the crisp white shirts and smart blazers in the world won't solve these problems. Ask your secondary age children how many supply teachers they had this week.

* Learning styles, how the brain works - There have been amazing findings over the past 20 years about how our brains work. Read anything by Tony Buzan or Carla Hannaford, then compare it with your own experience in schools or the experience of your children.

Do you tell your fidgety son to sit still and get on with his work? Once you have read these books, you'll never say that again. Do you know what kind of learner your child is and, more importantly, do his or her teachers know? Read these books and you'll never feel the same about pupils who swing on their seats.

* The school environment - The state of some of our school buildings is scandalous. Why should our children's school, the most important building to them apart from their own home, be rundown and scruffy, and be surrounded by ghastly temporary classrooms, often left there since their parents went to school?

We all work better in pleasant surroundings, don't we? Ask your children if the temperature in their classroom is comfortable. Are they too hot in summer and too cold in winter? Ask them what their toilets are like. How can we combat vandalism and litter?

* Boys - Read some books about how boys learn, and then ask your sons about their experience in school. Are they getting enough physical activity linked to what they are learning? What about good adult male role models? How many male primary teachers are there in your son's school? Do their teachers understand about how boys learn in different ways from girls?

* Health and sex - In Scotland, we are leading the way in teenage pregnancies, and we are lousy at dealing with alcohol. What is the health education like in your children's school? Can they get good advice and support easily? Are there condom machines?

We are at the beginning of a new era in this country with our devolved system. The solutions to these problems are not simple, and they are not as cheap as a trip to Marks and Spencer. However, if we as parents and teachers give these issues our attention, then we are working towards helping our children become better people.

Marion McDonald teaches in a school in central Scotland.

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