Uniforms - and confidence - have returned to Barrhead high school
Kay Crawford pushed open a door to reveal a class clad in striped ties, crested black blazers and squeaky clean white shirts. The man from Daz was surely about to appear; a director would shout "Cut!" and the pupils at Barrhead High, Renfrewshire, would revert to their traditional garb of sweatshirts and jeans.
Mrs Crawford, Barrhead's assistant headteacher, did a double take. "It was as if someone had waved a magic wand," she says. "The children looked so smart; as if they were here to work, not just to get out of the rain."
The transformation of Barrhead High is a tale of teachers working a miracle on a challenging school. For Barrhead pupils do not live in a rarefied world of riding lessons and Volvo estates, where uniforms are a natural - and affordable - part of the picture. Almost a third of the pupils are on free lunches, and the local shops have their own uniform of steel shutters.
It was the school board which last year mooted the idea of resurrecting uniform as a way of helping to turn around a school which had experienced a rapid turnover of management, and was suffering from low morale and a mixed reputation in the local community. A new headteacher, Kenneth Dykes, initiated a consultation programme featuring a questionnaire and meetings with parents from Barrhead High and its feeder primary schools, staff and pupils.
A team of staff and volunteers prepared leaflets, spoke to the local press and tracked down a uniform which would not bust the annual Pounds 50 uniform grant allocated by East Renfrewshire Council. By dealing direct with two suppliers, Trutex and Leonard Hudson, and taking no profit for the school, they were able to come up with a high-quality blazer, shirt, tie, V-neck sweater and trousers or skirt for Pounds 46. An individual item such as a kilt skirt was Pounds 8 rather than the retail price of Pounds 18. At a public meeting, staff presented the new look with a big-print price tag and invited a pupil to reveal how much his own clothes cost. They then stuck the appropriate Pounds 30 label on his jeans and Pounds 56 on his sweatshirt.
As well as the low price and high quality, parents said they liked the traditional image of uniform and the delivery of orders to the school which saved them bus fares and a trek round Glasgow shops. Staff felt they had achieved their aim of good value and convenience when mothers even began to order some items for their husbands to wear to work.
An element of choice helped sell the uniform to pupils. They preened themselves at a measuring evening trying on the different styles of skirt, trousers and shirts, which all seemed to make them look more grown-up. Mothers glowed seeing their sons looking smart in a shirt and tie, often for the first time. Mrs Crawford says: "You could almost see them thinking, 'That's my boy'."
Those who had not attended the measuring evening soon got to hear about it and more orders poured in. Mr Dykes says outright hostility was confined to a handful of Christmas leavers. The compromise was that they buy no blazers but wear a shirt and tie. Denim and football strips were banned. Black shoes are encouraged, and the fashion for wearing shirts out rather than tucked in is allowed. There are no strict rules about hairstyles.
Apathy, cynicism and indifference among some parents was to a large degree overcome by the consultation process, says Mr Dykes. Orders - which included 400 blazers - hit Pounds 16,000, and at the start of the new session almost every pupil was in uniform.
Parent Sandra Carrey recalls that first day: "It sounds crazy to say this but the children seemed to walk taller in their uniform. Their self-esteem was higher," she says.
Another mother, Marie Brennan, says uniform has helped make social inequalities less obvious. "You don't have fashions coming into the school. Not everyone can afford Pounds 100 tracksuits." She also feels that the consultation exercise has made more parents interested in the school in general. Mr Dykes agrees. "If we hadn't sold a single item of clothing, it would still have been a worthwhile exercise because of the number of parents it brought through the door," he says.
He commends consultation as a way of easing any new policy, for example concerning discipline or homework, into a school.
Now Mr Dykes is aiming to keep up uniform standards by spot checks, which can help earn treats such as a class outing to tenpin bowling. His team is also trying to find a jacket that can be worn in bad weather.
He says his rewards include a feeling that the children identify more with the school, are more self-disciplined, and have a less casual approach to work. Strangers in the school are instantly spotted, teachers' morale has risen, and the school has even won a Scottish Local Government Business Award for the scheme. Placing requests have jumped from 109 to 140 in the past year.
Mrs Crawford, now widely known in the school as Mrs Trutex, feels she received her reward when she was queueing in a baker's shop and heard shoppers and assistants discussing the new uniform. "Don't the children look smart. What a difference in that school," said one.