The worst of times for a dressing down

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Marcus Short questions his school's 'no uniform, no exam' policy. A few minutes before she was to sit her GCSE English, Amanda was in tears outside the exam hall. She had arrived at school wearing jeans and a shirt knotted at the waist - it was the first really hot day of the year - and the teacher in charge of invigilation had confronted her. The jeans were "inappropriate" for school and she must tuck her shirt in.

Amanda was distraught, seeing her chances of even sitting the exam slip away. The head of PE was asked to find a skirt for her; Amanda managed to calm down and was allowed to take her exam.

Later that day David had to change his jeans for regulation black trousers before he was allowed to take his place in the exam room. And the following morning I saw Daryll being escorted down the corridor to the lost property office where a senior teacher found him a pair of shoes. He'd arrived for his first science paper wearing trainers which are banned footwear at this school. Daryll began his exam 10 minutes late.

At their leaving ceremony in May, all our Year 11 pupils had been told they should attend exams wearing school uniform. This was the justification the school used for acting against Amanda, Daryll, David and several other students. But none was dressed outrageously and all were wearing some basic uniform - it just wasn't a complete uniform.

Although still on the school's roll, all the students coming in to take exams had already left - they'd been through the formal leaving ceremony and said their farewells to staff. But challenged about the "no uniform, no exam" policy, senior teachers asserted that the students were still at school and must therefore obey its rules. And the rules were absolute - if any student had refused to change their dress, they would have been sent home without sitting their exams.

Since this sorry saga, I have wondered what causal relationship exists between what pupils wear in the exam room and how they perform academically - whether they succeed or fail. I can't find any such evidence. But I am sure that my school's action could have had an effect on the final results - especially when a girl is reduced to tears a few minutes before she sits a vital exam, and when a boy starts his paper late because he's had to take off his own shoes and wear someone else's.

It's commonsense that candidates will do better if they are feeling as comfortable and as relaxed as possible. It can't help if they are forced to wear clothes they've disliked for years - and thought that as they're young adults, they'd discarded.

But the advocates of school uniform have never been comfortable with commonsense arguments. So they resort, as in this case, to the rules, that they must be obeyed without question - although the legal right of schools to force students to wear uniform is questionable.

What I find disturbing about this "no uniform, no exam" policy is what it might tell reasonable people about our priorities, our commonsense and our sense of perspective. What terrible thing would have occurred if Amanda, David and Daryll had been allowed to sit their exams dressed slightly improperly? Was it really worth increasing their stress - and that felt by their friends - at a time when they were already under great pressure? They had been with us for five years.

What matters most to us if we are what we say we are, a caring school? Willing our students to do their best on the day and achieve academic success, or making a fuss about appearances and insisting they conform to rules of dress which to them already belong to a bygone world?

Marcus Short is the pseudonym of a teacher in the West Country

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