Children tend to be the greatest critics of school uniform policies. Typically, they have devoured the contents of such documents with a surprisingly forensic eye for detail. Parents tend to worry about cost and durability as opposed to style and length. National and local newspapers often run stories of standoffs between achingly cool parents and miserable senior leadership teams. Typically, the child is photographed with arms folded staring defiantly into the middle distance next to an equally grumpy looking parent. Accusations fly back and forth. For anyone not caught up in the drama of the moment it is difficult to understand why passions run so high. Why are schools so inflexible and why would any parent jeopardise their child’s education over the right to wear inch long pink Shellac nails?
Sartorial elegance is not my strong suit. Out of term time, I am likely to be found wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Sometimes I shave and sometimes not – depending upon my mood. However, during working hours you will find me clean shaven and wearing a jacket and tie. That is because I believe that it is our collective responsibility, as a staff body, to model the high expectations that we ask from our children. Of course, there are heated debates to be had about gender inclusivity, exceptionalism, individuality, and much more besides. Some of these discussions raise important questions about authority and community. It is true that school leadership teams need to be responsive to the changing nature of society. Mullets (business at the front, party at the back!) skin fades, fake tans, heavy eyeliner and peroxide bouffants all have their moment and I have yet to meet two people who will agree upon precisely what is ‘acceptable’ at a given moment in time.
To be honest, there have been times when I have thought that life would be so much simpler if we scrapped uniforms altogether. It would save parents a good deal of money and save us a good deal of time and fuss. Children could knock themselves out with exotic hair styles and daring clothes. Ties would be banished (hooray!) and we would never again need to iron shirts or polish shoes. A few years ago I inspected an American community school here in the UK. They did not have a uniform and so I was expecting to see an impressive variety of clothing. Instead, it was just a low key procession of hoodies and jeans. It was boringly unadventurous.
Children may well be fierce critics of uniform but they are also its most fantastically compelling advocates. They certainly react very negatively to any suggestion that school uniforms should be abolished. Of course they would like tweaks to the policy but, time and again, they make it clear that they do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They might want to interpret certain aspects more loosely but, fundamentally, they understand the benefits of belonging to a school community which expresses its culture, traditions and aspiration through a shared identity and commitment to smartness. That does not mean that day-to-day they do not want to push the boundaries and doing so is a natural and healthy part of growing up. After all, a school’s uniform and appearance policy provides a paradigm within which challenge feels safe.
As parents we often feel that we are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to such matters. In principle, the vast majority of us support the high standards that our children’s schools insist upon. We understand that standards and expectations are essential in terms of supporting good behaviour and providing a context within which young people are inspired to strive for the best. There is plenty of research to suggest that schools that tolerate poor behaviour or a lackadaisical approach to uniform have a tendency to significantly underperform in other areas. Causation or correlation? I will leave that for you to decide. Nothing advertises a school’s collective indifference quite so exquisitely as scruffy students and scruffy staff.
A laissez-faire attitude that follows the path of least resistance does not set one up well for success in a world that is competitive and places a value on presentation. Of course, there is an intrinsic tension between individual self-expression and the collective identity of a community. There has to be room for both within any successful school. In our Sixth Form, we talk of the need to appear smart and purposeful. Generally speaking our students get it right and they always make a special effort for big occasions.
Clarity of communication and consistency of expectation is vitally important in such areas of school life. Occasionally, this will be lacking or there will be a genuine misunderstanding. Parents frequently assure schools that they agree with the uniform and appearance policies in principle whilst, naturally enough, pleading for a special allowance for their own child. As parents we sometimes seem surprised that our child has received a sanction for breaching the policy and yet we cannot reasonably have failed to notice that the uniform and appearance code is not being upheld. The false nails and fake tan did not appear on the journey to school. If we have not challenged them to get it right then we are, to some extent, complicit.
As School leaders, we make the assumption that parents embrace the ethos and values of the schools we serve. We hope that the expectations and standards that we promote resonate with their own desire for consistency. Remember those photographs we took of our children on their first day at primary school? Smartly pressed shirts, immaculate blazers and nervous smiles. On one level these faded photos constitute a nostalgic ocean of cuteness but they are also symbolic of the hopes and dreams that we invest in our children’s future. At such moments, we feel pride in our children and pride in the fact that they have achieved such important milestones. If you told the parents of a five year old that, ten years later, they would be fighting for their child’s right to wear a nose stud or pink hair to School, then they would probably think you were talking nonsense.
Parenting is difficult and it is not surprising that parents convince themselves that what they once valued so highly is now nothing more than an affront to their child’s freedom of expression. School uniforms are here to stay and there is an inevitability that there will continue to be endless discussions about personal presentation. This is normal enough and should not cause us undue concern. The Student Council and various other forums that promote student voice provide plenty of opportunity for debate. Our role as parents is to be supportive of the general ethos and values of the communities that we have elected to join whilst recognising that we (and our children) will not always agree with the specifics.
We place our sons and daughters in an impossible position if we fail to work with School to ensure adherence to the spirit of such policies. Of course, the benefits of working together on issues such as behavioural expectations and personal appearance are very obvious and if home and school are not singing from the same hymn sheet then our children will have little opportunity to sing in tune.
Headmaster of Rossall School