Is Clarke right on uniform?

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
The Education Secretary has launched a war on scruffiness. But is it really such a smart move?

Mention uniform and - like a second-rate school debate - you hear the knee-jerk response about it being an upper-class thing.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, hailed Charles Clarke's recent exhortation for schools to have uniforms as "a return to traditional school uniforms, the house system and competitive sport". It was, the paper said, intended to "make comprehensives more like sought-after fee-paying schools".

Predictably the Telegraph associates uniform with private schools and poshness. For me - a strong supporter of school uniform - that's a side issue.

Here are five better arguments.

1 Pride and identity.

The most successful organisations have a strong self-identity. Their customers and employees know who they are and what they stand for. Uniform reinforces a sense of belonging to the corporate whole. It associates students with our high expectations, whatever their circumstances. It therefore shows our commitment to achieving the best for each child irrespective of background.

2 Individuality Don't be fooled by arguments that uniform suppresses personality. I watched a group of boys at a school concert the other night. They all wore the same Adidas caps and sports outfits. They weren't expressing personal identity: they were showing which tribe they belonged to. It was their out-of-school uniform.

By dispensing with uniform we pander to media which encourage young people to judge people by how they look, not who they actually are. Watch a few commercials between teen-oriented programmes. Notice the consistent and insidious message that you are a social reject if you aren't wearing the right sunglasses, drinking the right cola, or sporting the fashionable brand. As educators we need to rise above this label culture. Let's enable our young people to define themselves by who they are, not superficially, by the brand names they buy.

3 Community spirit

Uniform encourages a healthy sense of citizenship. Conformism is not fashionable: we live in an age that encourages us to think that all rebellion and defiance is a sign of strong personality. But schools rely on co-operation. We need clear rules to work effectively. Our young people need to learn that conforming isn't some heretical act of weakness, but part of a commitment to being in a community. Wearing a uniform reinforces this.

4 Self-esteem

Uniform breeds self-esteem - and not just for the students. A recent Department for Education and Skills survey shows that 83 per cent of parents favour uniform. It reassures them that the school has high standards and clear expectations of behaviour.

Critics might wish to dispute this - though they'll find it hard to find a high-performing English state school that doesn't insist on uniform - but they need to remember the importance of perception.

Falling crime figures and fewer train delays aren't much good if not accompanied by the perception that crime is falling and more trains are on time. That's why so many new heads at failing schools use uniform to change community perceptions of the school and rebuild students' self-esteem.

5 Behaviour

In that famous New York "broken windows" policing policy, officers paid attention to minor vandalism and graffiti and found more serious crimes dropped.

Similarly, when I pick up a student at school for breaching the uniform code by wearing jewellery or trainers, I'm focusing on a small, uncontroversial detail. Looking after these minor issues will often prevent a slide into more serious bad behaviour. It reinforces a culture of personal responsibility.

Uniform isn't a superficial issue separate from learning. As school leaders are increasingly accepting in Australia and the United States, it's a way to state our values and expectations. In saying that students have to be dressed appropriately for lessons, we draw a line between our expectations and the culture of the streets or housing estates around us. This is nothing to do with poshness. It's about focusing on young people as individuals - valuing them for who they are, not how they look.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds

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