When headteacher Howard Lay chose to begin the school year by sending home 60 girls for wearing the wrong kind of trousers, he almost certainly knew what would follow: outraged parents, stroppy pupils and unwelcome publicity in the press. But heads who have made similar stands insist a tough approach can work.
In 2007, headteacher John Biddlestone sent home 36 pupils from Swinton High School in Salford when they turned up in non-regulation shoes. This year, it was a different story. "On the first day of term we inspected all our pupils - 1,000 of them - and there was not one single breach of uniform," he says. "So our policy has clearly been effective."
At Nunthorpe School in Middlesbrough, head Debbie Clinton goes even further, claiming that her decision last year to send home 65 students was "a major turning point in the history of the school". Readers of the Northern Echo branded her variously "petty", "authoritarian" and "a control freak" after a top-to-toe crackdown on everything from coloured hair bobbles to patterned socks. But Ms Clinton insists she has been vindicated: "It sent a clear message that disobedience would not be tolerated, and since then attendance has shot up, behavioural incidents have gone down, and we've had record exam results."
But headteachers who choose to exclude pupils over uniform issues need to tread carefully if they are to stay within the law. Guidelines allow schools to send pupils home to get changed, but this must be marked as an authorised absence. Only in the case of "persistent and defiant" flouting of the rules can a pupil be sent home for the day or excluded, and even then schools need to be sure that financial hardship is not at the root of the problem.
It is also important to be sensitive about cultural issues. Under the Human Rights Act, all pupils have the right to "manifest religion or belief". However, there are legal precedents where a school's policy on items such as jewellery or veils has been upheld because the act does not give people the right to manifest their beliefs "at all times". It is a complex issue, and it is important that uniform rules are clear, detailed and circulated to parents and pupils at regular intervals.
Of course, different schools take different approaches. In some parts of the world, such as Queenland, Australia, it is illegal to remove children from lessons because of uniform transgressions, and there are plenty of heads and teachers in the UK who would agree with that principle.
"You need to keep a sense of perspective," says one deputy head. "You can't deny someone access to education just because their trousers are too tight or their socks are the wrong colour."
But heads such as John Biddlestone argue that if persuasion, negotiation and after-school detention have failed, they have little choice but to send pupils home. "If you adopt a clear, consistent approach, uniform issues soon become a thing of the past," he says. "Once that happens, you're free to focus on what matters, which is teaching and learning."
What the guidelines say
- Uniform policy must be "fair and reasonable", and the uniform "affordable".
- Schools should publicise their uniform policy on their website.
- Pupils should not be punished for uniform issues linked to financial hardship.
- If a child is sent home to get changed, it must be marked as an authorised absence.
Exclusion is only appropriate in the case of persistent offenders.