In Defiance of Compliance


Speaking as a parent, instead of as a teacher, I can see that the vast majority of school rules are eminently sensible – they are based around either learning, or the health and safety of children and teachers. If you don’t listen properly, you can’t learn; if you run in the corridors, someone might get hurt. Then there are the rules that I can just about understand, and that I am okay to go along with, even if I don’t entirely agree with their purpose. A practical, hard wearing, sensible and cheap school uniform is a good example of this – it makes my life easier in a lot of ways, and I am happy to set aside any personal qualms to help my children’s schools achieve consistency in it, so long as they don’t get stupidly picky about the details. And then there are the other rules; the ones that don’t seem to make any sense. The ones that appear to have been made up purely in an effort to get parents to be more compliant, that seem almost like a deliberate attempt to discourage particular ‘types’ of people from even considering applying to a school, or that are almost impossible to comply with whatever the hell you do.

This week I saw an article about a school that had a rule about a specific size of pencil case – it had to be long enough to hold a 30cm ruler. (Quite why the aforementioned 30cm ruler couldn’t just go loose in the kids’ bags, I have no idea.) Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a regular purchaser of pencil cases. Since my kids began at school, it seems like I have bought hundreds of the things. When your children overload them with felt tips (as mine have a tendency to do), the zips often break. Plus my kids are quite keen to specify the kind of pencil cases they would prefer. And so I have become what you might call a connoisseur of the pencil case. I have located owl ones, ones with dots, clear ones, and ‘definitely not pink, mummy!’ ones. And my vast experience as a pencil case purchaser has taught me that, if you want to find a pencil case long enough to take a full length (30cm) ruler, then you are looking at a very limited set of options indeed. On this page of 155 types of pencil case from the well known stationery retailer, W.H. Smith, it looks to me like there is only one pencil case that will fit a full length ruler. Now, you might say to me, “Well, what’s the problem with that? If the school requires it, get on with it and buy it.” But this reaction overlooks two rather important issues: 1. The purchasing of pencil cases mostly happens in September, at which point if your local school requires a specific pencil case said pencil case will instantly be ‘out of stock’ in all the local shops, and 2. The kids will all end up with the same damn pencil case.

If you dare to question the rules set by some schools, particularly online, the standard response seems to be that (a) parents sign up to the rules when they apply to the school, that (b) parents can always choose somewhere else if they don’t like it, and that (c) consistency matters more than personal preferences. So let’s have a look at whether these arguments hold water. Firstly, parents do not ‘sign up’ to a long list of rules when they apply to a school – that would imply a choice of schools and school rules that simply doesn’t exist. No, parents cannot choose the school where they send their child, unless they are in an area with good public transport, or they plan to drive their child to school every day. (And even if there is transport, and you try to choose, you may not get your first choice of school.) And what about those of us who are fed up with the concept of ‘choice’, and who would just like to use our local schools? What happens to us? Then, the idea that I could just pick my kid out of one school, because I happened to disagree with an aspect of its policy, and drop them instantly into another one, is a fantasy as well. Again, this relies on me having access both to a new school place, and a way to transport my kid to it.

When it comes to (c), I do have some sympathy with this argument. Consistency is an important factor in effective behaviour management. Unfortunately, though, it becomes hard for parents to be consistent when rules are so specific and detailed in nature that the laws of supply and demand make it impossible to follow them. (“What do you mean you don’t have any shoes left without buckles in my kid’s size? This is Clarks Village for god’s sake!”) When I take up a place at a school for my child, what I want is to begin a long and fruitful partnership in which I support the school, and they support my child. (Thankfully my local schools do exactly this.) What I most definitely do not want is for the school to say to me the equivalent of: “Comply or Die” – do exactly as we say, or go away! If a rule is impossibly hard to follow, or if it causes parents anguish, expense or unnecessary stress, then there had better be a good reason to ask for it. Otherwise it’s not me or my child that is in the wrong for not following the rule. It is the rule that is stupid. And, that being the case, I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one who made it up.

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