Smarter way to deal with the dress code

18th July 2003 at 01:00
By niece, aged 13, has had her ears pierced. This caused some initial consternation, her parents being of the opinion that an earstud was the first step on the road to drug addiction and a life on the street. But a compromise was negotiated and the deed was done in return for a moratorium on further drilling.

Would that schools were as sensible. Summer holidays are upon us and the 'back to school' signs in the shop remind parents about the need to shell out for overpriced, impractical clothes that will only ever be worn for school.

Who is wearing a blazer in 21st-century Britain? Answer - superannuated golf club bores, Alan Partridge, Henley Hoorays and schoolchildren. Why are we still inflicting this nonsense on our kids?

Thirty years ago the era of ridiculous regulations was on its way out. Caps had been consigned to the bin, gymslips were history. A growing number of schools had the confidence to abandon uniform altogether.

League tables changed that. Heads desperate to maintain numbers caved in to the lure of the uniform as a marketing ploy.

Depressingly, the resurgence of the blazer even has the chief inspector's blessing. David Bell thinks uniforms are "symbols of belonging" that help to improve standards.

To my knowledge, no research in the UK has established any link between straw boaters and GCSE performance.

What we have are perceptions. Uniforms are firmly associated with the poshest independent schools, with selection and with money. This is about one-upmanship, not education.

And the arguments used to justify shoehorning children into clothes they hate? The more credible enthusiasts talk about the need to avoid the designer label culture. There is some merit in that. But all too often schools resort to subterfuge.

Some use health and safety as a reason to ban the things they dislike.

Jewellery, high heels, long hair, unsuitable shoes - all are safety risks.

But do the rules apply to the staff? If safety really is an issue - as it might be for large earrings or long hair - then everybody in the building should be subject to the restriction, not just the pupils.

Other heads talk about ethos, but fail to explain how removing freedom of choice encourages anything but simmering resentment. A recent Ofsted report catalogued the failure to introduce meaningful citizenship programmes into schools, but citizenship is a two-way street. How many heads make the connection between the disaffection in the classroom and the endless battles over trainers, ties and haircuts?

Schools have a duty to prepare young people for work. But they should take a look at the hospitals and armed services. Today's squaddies and medics dress for the job. Try suggesting ties and blazers to an Aamp;E nurse or a tank mechanic.

And who says that office work should be the model anyway? What about the media, journalism, the creative arts, engineering, conservation, horticulture - or even the shop floor?

Let us not confuse smart with conventional. One of the scruffiest people I ever worked with wore an ill-fitting suit with shirts and ties that rarely matched. And teenagers know 101 ways to sabotage their uniform, from the micro-tie to the miniskirt.

Dress codes are acceptable in any environment. But rules should be practical and should result from genuine dialogue. Communication has to be worked at, but both sides usually learn something about each other's point of view. Isn't that why the kids are in school in the first place?

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