The great school uniform debate

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Patrick McDermott answers your leadership questions

We are an improving inner-city school. At the moment there is a debate going on as to whether or not we should introduce a uniform. There is a lack of consensus among staff over which way to go. Our governors are very keen that we should have a school uniform. I am a relatively new headteacher so would appreciate advice on how to proceed.

Proceed with extreme caution. School uniform is a topic capable of provoking strong emotions. Ultimately it is difficult to justify the case either for or against uniforms in schools as this debate ends up in the realms of aesthetics and this reduces the arguments to matters of personal taste.

You say that you are an improving school. Therefore presumably one reason that the governors are so keen on introducing a uniform is that they want to build on this profile by providing a visible sign for the local community and building a sense of identity that will be recognised and associated with your recent successes. Some schools find that the wearing of a uniform helps to develop a sense of pride in the school.

Some parents are relieved that a school is deciding to introduce a uniform as it removes competitive dressing and the constant pestering of their children for the latest and most expensive fashion item. Children from poorer families are also relieved as they don't have to embarrass their parents by asking them for new clothes all the time to attempt to keep up with the "haves".

There are a couple of other considerations that you might want to think through and discuss with your leadership team.

If your governors go ahead and introduce a school uniform then you will have to ensure that it is adhered to by all pupils. This means that you will need a "non-compliance with school uniform policy".

* What are you going to do with a pupil who refuses to wear the school uniform or is selective about which bits they will wear?

* Is your school uniform policy also going to include reference to hairstyles, unacceptable dress and body piercing?

* Do you see these as a challenge to the values of your school?

* Are you going to stipulate what are "suitable" shoes for school?

The Government is not going to consider exclusion to be an appropriate response to breaches of your uniform policy. Then there is the whole area of the relationship of your uniform policy and the demands of certain cultures, races and religions.

* Is your uniform policy tolerant enough to accommodate these demands?

* While pupils must adhere to a school's uniform policy, how sensitive is your policy going to be to the needs of different cultures, races and religions with regard to what they can and cannot wear?

* If your school is mixed then will the girls be allowed to wear trousers as well as the boys?

I am sure that your governors will want to consult widely with parents before they decide to introduce a uniform. The governors need to be receptive to their views handle them with respect. Some schools have actively involved pupils in the design stage of a new uniform. This helps to reduce their resistance to the idea.

Another consideration is the number of pupils that walk or cycle to school.

You may also need to consider that the uniform should not be too dark thus making it difficult for these pupils to be seen by motorists especially in the dark winter nights. Light colours and reflective materials could be included in the uniform for this reason.

Even when you have engineered some sort of consensus among staff, governors, parents and pupils about the uniform style and policy, you still have then to address the minefield of colours and materials. Not an easy job but one that can reap great rewards for all concerned.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school in Bradford. This is his third headship: he has been a head for 13 years and a teacher for 28. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.Do you have a leadership question?Email susan.young@tes.co.uk

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