This week, a couple of fascinating school uniform stories hit the news. In a speech to the CBI the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that wearing uniform gives children “a lesson in how to be employable”. In The Guardian, a head teacher who sent 150 children home for uniform breaches was quoted as saying that “Being kind to the children is a camouflage often for low expectations.” As a parent, these comments spark off a number of questions in my mind. Is the key purpose of education to make my children ‘employable’? How many (and what kind of) workplaces require a uniform? Are we seriously saying that being kind to children is wrong? What on earth do these mass exclusions do to long term parent/school relationships? And, where exactly is the evidence linking school uniform to children’s learning?
Setting all these questions to one side, though, what both stories seem to miss is the fact that it is not children who have to afford, and pay for, and wash, and (perhaps) iron, a school uniform. It is their parents. Essentially, what we are seeing here is a message of compliance being sent to parents, rather than to children. Do as you are told, the message seems to be, or your child will not be entitled to an education. Increasingly, I see schools with complex, expensive uniforms, ones that presumably cost hard-pressed parents an arm and a leg. And it does make me start to wonder whether uniform, and compliance with a complex uniform code, is turning into a covert form of selection.
There are two ways you can get people to behave as you want – you can either encourage and support them to do it, or you can punish them for not doing it, by making them afraid of the consequences. When I send my children to school, what I hope for is a partnership, focused on my children’s learning, happiness, and well-being. Regardless of Ofsted reports or exam results, this is what I’d imagine many parents want. As a parent, I try my very best to be supportive of my children’s schools. I send my children into school wearing the correct uniform. If an item goes missing, I can afford to buy a replacement. I know why it is important for me to back up school. (And yes, I’m aware that some parents do not.) But not only do I support my children’s schools by sending them in correct uniform, my children’s schools support me and their other parents, in achieving this. And here’s how they do it:
* The uniform is good value, easy to get hold of in local shops, and washable.
* The uniform is comfortable, my children are happy to wear it, and it does not impede learning in any way. (Whatever Sir Michael might say, school is not a workplace, it is a learning place.)
* I was given clear information about what I needed to buy, and where to buy it.
* I had the choice of buying cheaper ‘non badge’ school tops if I did not want to, or could not afford to, buy the school version.
* There are no complicated and potentially costly rules about things such as the colour of bags and coats.
* There is a sensible attitude to missing or lost uniform – teachers help you and your child track it down.
* If I needed to, I could buy a complete set of uniform, including shoes, for less than £100.
* The focus is not on uniform (frankly, this feels like a side issue); the focus is on children being in school to learn.
What is interesting to me is that these mass exclusions seem to be happening in schools that are struggling. A crackdown on school uniform becomes a symbolic crackdown on a lack of parental compliance. And this makes me uneasy, because it seems to suggest that for some parents, in some kinds of schools, the focus is on encouragement and support. While in others, the message essentially boils down to: comply, or else.