The issue: Pupil consultation

11th February 2011 at 00:00
Giving pupils a vote on uniform design could reveal unexpected conservatism

Knee breeches, yellow socks and neck bands - the kind of clothes you might find lying around the drama studio after a rehearsal of Twelfth Night. But pupils at Christ's Hospital school in Horsham, West Sussex, recently voted in favour of keeping their eccentric school uniform, rather than updating it.

A surprising decision? Perhaps. But it is by no means unusual for pupils to show a conservative streak when it comes to choosing their uniform.

Last year, at Hethersett High in Norfolk, more than 200 pupils petitioned the school asking if they could ditch their polo shirts in favour of traditional blazer and tie.

"We were flabbergasted," says acting head Mike Masters. "But a group of pupils had been on a joint school trip where the other children wore blazers, and they had felt scruffy by comparison. We were happy to listen to the democratic voice."

If young people feel consulted, they are more likely to respect the rules. That in turn means fewer hassles for staff. "When pupils are involved in choosing their uniform they take real pride in what they wear," says Angela Nicholls, head at Groombridge St Thomas CofE Primary in Kent, where pupils - and parents - vote on uniform every five years.

"I certainly don't think it would be right to simply impose my own views. It's a community decision," she adds.

Of course, the downside to a democratic approach is that you might not like the outcome. Especially if your school council is dominated by trendsetters rather than traditionalists. At Mangotsfield School in Bristol, for example, the uniform has changed over the years from shirt and tie to polo neck to zip-up top - and now the school council is pushing a new line in knitwear: the cardigan.

"Apparently, they are very popular right now," says deputy head Andrew Wait. "But my worry is that in a few years' time, the only people wearing cardigans will be 60-year-olds and we will have to change everything again. Fashion and school uniform don't really mix."

Even so, Mr Wait remains committed to letting pupils have their say. So Mangotsfield's school council is given a budget to commission mock-ups of designs, which are then voted on by the whole school, before the governors are asked to ratify the decision.

But how far are schools prepared to go on meeting their pupils' requests? It is quite common for students to be consulted on the design of their ties or the colour of their sweatshirts, but it is still rare for them to be given a vote on whether to abolish uniform completely.

"Schools are wary of giving real power to pupils," says Kate Parish, chief executive of Pupil Voice and Participation England, a national organisation for school councils.

"But there is no reason to be afraid," she says. "The more responsibility you give young people, the more they will rise to the challenge."

Uniform dos and don'ts

- Involve your school council - but always hold a wider school vote as well.

- Running competitions is a good way to encourage new ideas and designs.

- Make sure pupils understand that uniform is a community issue. They should have a say - but so too should parents, teachers and governors.

- Give pupils guidelines. You may want to keep your school's traditional colours to ensure continuity.

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