Are school uniforms a tool for improving academic standards, or just a distraction? Anat Arkin reports
Civilisation didn't collapse in Totnes when the town's community college abandoned school uniforms last year. To the surprise of some observers, discipline didn't break down and there was no outbreak of dress-related bullying when the school's 1,800 pupils swapped regulation trousers and polo shirts for the universal young person's uniform of jeans, sweatshirt and trainers.
What the new policy at King Edward VI community college has done, however, is to end the daily confrontations between pupils and staff over dress, which principal Stephen Jones describes as a distraction from teaching and learning. "It's been like taking the top off a pressure cooker," he says.
"I can now walk from one end of the school to another and stop and talk to students about how their work is going without saying, 'excuse me, could you tuck your shirt in or could you take your trainers off'."
Governors decided to pilot the no-uniform policy for three years after consultations with parents, staff and students. Those staff who responded - around a quarter of the total - were evenly split on the issue. The 150 or so parents who wrote to the school were two to one in favour of keeping the uniform, whereas 80 per cent of students voted to drop it. But it was the decision to give every student a vote that was the real bone of contention, and there were protests and petitions from outraged parents.
A year on, Mr Jones says that many of those who were opposed to the change have been won over, though some still think it has been a disaster.
The school's governors, he adds, gave pupils a huge amount of responsibility and they have reacted "beautifully". Admittedly, when the weather has been hot, staff have sometimes had to talk to girls about exposing too much flesh. But discussions about the messages these girls send when they show too much midriff or cleavage have, according to Mr Jones, been more meaningful than the old arguments about whether or not a top displayed the college crest.
But King Edward VI is swimming against a tide that has seen the majority of secondary schools in England adopting uniforms and the Government announcing in its recent five-year strategy that it expects the rest to follow suit. Stephen Jones points out that his school's exam results improved this year - which clearly had nothing to do with the way teenagers dress.
He is convinced, however, that had the results gone down, critics would have pinned the blame on the absence of a school uniform.
While the no-uniform policy has been a success in Totnes, with its large artistic community and generally compliant students, Mr Jones admits that the path his school has chosen may not be suitable for those schools operating in more challenging circumstances.
Certainly, for headteachers trying to turn schools around, a new uniform can signal a break with the past. That was the case at Hillcrest school and community college in Dudley which introduced a new uniform after coming out of special measures in 2000. This consists of a black blazer with school badge, white shirt, house tie, black trousers, skirt or shalwar kameez, black shoes and plain cotton hajib for girls choosing to wear it.
Headteacher Mo Brennan says this very formal outfit sends out the message that students are at school to work, rather than "doss around". She believes it also reduces bullying. "It means that teachers can concentrate on getting the best from the youngsters and instead of the youngsters being picked on because they haven't got the best trainers, they concentrate on learning."
In the past four years, Hillcrest has seen the proportion of students gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE shoot up from 16 to 43 per cent and the once-struggling school is now oversubscribed. Mrs Brennan believes that the wearing of uniforms has been a factor in this success.
However, hard evidence of a link between school uniform and teenager's attainment or behaviour is thin on the ground. The little academic research that has been done on the subject has been inconclusive. All that can be said with certainty is that parents believe uniforms make a difference. A DfES survey last year found that 83 per cent of parents were in favour of pupils wearing school uniform, with 68 per cent saying that it could help improve discipline and almost as many believing that it could raise school standards.
John Smith, head of Burleigh community college in Loughborough, which has just introduced a uniform for the first time, does not claim that this will raise standards.
"But as part of the process of raising expectations it will contribute to it," he says.
The 14 to 18 school adopted a uniform partly because differences in wealth were all too visible when students wore what they chose. Security was also a factor, with the new uniform making it easier to distinguish between students and intruders. Supported by a majority of parents and many students, Burleigh's uniform policy allows Muslim students to opt for traditional dress, so long as it is in the school colours and they have religious or strong cultural reasons for wearing it. This should help the school avoid the kind of row that engulfed Denbigh high in Luton when it stopped Shabina Begum from wearing an ankle-length gown to lessons. The 15-year-old claimed this infringed her human rights to express her religious beliefs but lost her High Court battle against the school earlier this year.
Another high-profile dispute over uniforms broke out last term when Coseley school in Dudley stopped a boy from sitting one of his GCSE exams because he turned up in grey, rather than black trousers.
The question of girls wearing trousers to school also remains controversial, with the Equal Opportunities Commission regularly receiving calls from parents who feel that different rules for boys and girls are discriminatory.
However, Kesgrave high near Ipswich ran into flak when its governors took the opposite approach and made trousers compulsory for girls.
More rows can be expected as the Government's support for school uniform comes into conflict with its other policies. As Stephen Jones says: "The Government says it wants schools reflecting their communities. It wants to see schools identified as different and talks about the student voice, and that doesn't quite fit with the notion of all schools having a uniform."