'School has rules' shocker: Margate, Uniformgate and one school's trial by public opinion
|'What do we want? WEE TASSELS'|
Like Flying Ant Week or Ed Balls Day, School News Reporting follows an annual cycle, and this week (the first term for most) usually has a story which can charitably be summarised as ‘School has rule and sticks to it.’ I’ve worked at schools where police came to the gates so often the playground was nicknamed Scotland Yard. And kids get sent home all the time for school uniform, for rucks, for health reasons. So a story about police breaking up a scuffle outside a school because the Head teacher was enforcing a strict new uniform code wouldn’t get outside local news, right?
Wrong. ‘Riots outside Margate School’ headlines ran, about Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Kent, where parents were less than pleased to be told their children would have to go home for being improperly dressed for school. And they were prepared to vent that fury to the poor staff at the school, and any camera nearby. ‘This is disgusting,’ somebody said to me online. ‘This school has gone downhill.’
Really? This is a school where in 2014 the GCSE 5 A*-C pass rate was 19%, which to put it in perspective is probably less than if the mafia had paid students to throw the exam. I think the school had more substantial concerns than whether or not the dress code was too narrow. This is a school where, figuratively speaking, parents should have been rioting a long time ago, only to demand better results.
Taters gonna Tate
And change has come, in the shape of a new Head Teacher, Matthew Tate, who is my latest Educational Hero of the Week. On one corner, thousands of outraged, instant experts who suddenly knew more than an experienced head how to run a school, camera crews from Newcastle to Narnia, and newspapers all fighting over the last bean of news in the tin; in the other, a school trying to start a new term, facing down the barrel of inspection and expectations. Good luck trying to do your job in that melee. Parents at the gate probably seem the least of it.
One thing that angers me about the coverage and subsequent pearl-clutching is that this kind of trial-by-stoning sets a tyrannical precedent. Will future heads, considering taking a hard line on a big task, demur, knowing that they might have to endure the auto-da-fé of the commentariat? I hope not. I hope not. Running a school is hard enough.
So, to Margate, where we lay our bloody scene. What are the rights and wrongs of this school’s actions? I’ll try to answer most of the points I’ve seen made today. And bear in mind, that unless you actually work at this school, there could be a lot of context we simply don’t know about. So I’ll try to generalise where I can.
What does research tell us about using uniforms as a whole school strategy?
|Know your enemy|
Uniforms don’t matter; plenty of countries don't have them and do better than us
Of course they do; Finland and Canada are pretty uniform free, for example. But this isn't surprising. Schools can achieve (or possess) great learning and sociable habits without uniforms. But that’s because they’ve used other methods to create cultures of high expectation and civility.
Uniforms don’t matter; they have nothing to do with learning
Lots of things have little to do with learning but we value them regardless. Would you be happy with students telling you to go take a flying fox to yourself? Should you ignore it, as long as they kept working and didn't disturb anyone? We don't just teach them lessons in their subjects. We help to teach them good conduct, habits of character, civility, cooperation, community. These kinds of things are an invisible curriculum. If you want to create an atmosphere where people feel included, equal, and shared an identity, then uniforms are one way of getting there. They help reduce label-based class systems, poverty-shaming, and prematurely sexualised outfits. Some pupils are proud to be part of the fleet that wears their colours. The local community can see where students come from. There are a host of potential benefits.
I say potential. There are many ways of achieving these objectives, and this is one way. It has obvious possible advantages.
Uniforms have no value.
Oh they do. There’s a reason why the police who showed up wore a uniform; why the army, nurses, doctors and pretty much every professional has a dress code. They denote status, group membership, identity. You can have these things without uniforms of course, but you can also have them with uniforms. You may not like uniforms. You may find them vehicles of conformity. Fine. That’s not the argument here.
Does having a uniform policy lead to better outcomes?
It’s not that simple. Nobody is claiming that uniforms directly lead to better results. The research is ambiguous. So why have them? Because schools don't achieve great things with students by accident. School leaders need to create a school culture, built on social norms that help to optimise the types of behaviours conducive to great learning. This kind of culture doesn't happen by itself. It takes care, craft and constant reinforcement. Uniforms are one tool to achieve this. Other tools are available. I’ve seen great schools with no uniform, and terrible ones with long lists of kit. It’s a tool, and like all tools can be misused or misunderstood.
Surely having the wrong socks isn't more important than education?
We mustn’t get trapped in the details of this. Details are what make a culture. Any one of them might seem trivial, but collectively they define the social norms of the school. It’s like promising to give up smoking but looking at the cigarette and thinking ‘Yeah, but this one's my mate- you won't kill me, will you little fella?’ Jaffa cakes seem angelic, but a sack of them will turn your waist line to porridge. If you want to lose weight, bin the Kit Kats. If you're building a culture, sweat the small stuff.
Why send children home?
Have a uniform policy or don’t have one. But if you’re going to have one, have one. Don’t have a policy in name only. If a school claims that students must do X but then blatantly allows Y, then children are adept in working out that Y is the real rule of the school. If X, then X, otherwise you just push your boundaries back somewhere else and the battleground for what is permissible moves with it. If the uniform policy is ignored or broken, then there needs to be some form of consequence.
But sending them home?
This was the thing that stoked the most fury, with claims it was disproportionate. But why? Pupils have been sent home since time began to get the right gym kit or lunch. It’s an inconvenience, sure, but it’s hardly water boarding. It’s certainly a memorable consequence, and you’ll find that many students’ uniform is remarkably closer to the policy than before the next day.
Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to give them a detention at lunch or similar?
It’s certainly an option, and it might have the impact you want. But it seems a lot closer to a punishment for a parent’s behaviour than sending home to get the right uniform (and I know from social media how many people approve of that). If you just give a warning, or allow them to spend a normal day at school, you reinforce the idea that rules can be broken and they didn’t really matter. Watch how many pupils would turn up in exactly the same uniform the next day unless a bold statement was made to them.
But FIFTY pupils! That should show how wrong it is
One or fifty, if there's a rule, there's a rule for them all. That's what fair means. We wouldn't let a recidivist burglar off his last spree because there had been so many others, or dispute Mo Farrah his last medal because he already has so many.
What if students had a genuine reason for the wrong uniform?
There are always reasonable exceptions to every rule. If a school doesn't make allowances for extreme context, then it sets itself up to accusations of genuine inflexibility. But exemptions must be exceptional.
This is outrageous! The Head teacher should resign!
No he shouldn’t. He should be given an OBE for services to children. In my opinion, and from my experience and observation of scores of successful schools, I think he’s absolutely in the right. I think a small band of protesters have made his job of turning round a school in difficulty much, much harder. I hear there is strong support from within the school for the new Head’s general approach. It’s easy to find talking heads of glum pupils and parents to cry foul for the camera. I bet there are hundreds of pupils, staff and parents who welcome the revolution.
Instant results with no effort
What really grinds my gears is how much this reveals about our dysfunctional attitude towards good behaviour. We applaud standards but often decry the methods used to achieve them. We value grit and self regulation and self discipline, but balk at the exercises needed to obtain them. Have we became so sensitised to discomfort that being sent home for a tie, or to change out of trainers, is seen as an assault on our dignity? Have we lost sight so much of the causal chain between effort, struggle, persistence and success that a school doing its best to raise the Titanic is torpedoed for trying?
Good behaviour isn't just ‘not mucking around.’ Good behaviour is a complex package of habits, reactions and inclinations that take a long time to accumulate or encourage. Its creation is akin to writing a book; a succession of thousands, millions of keystrokes that accumulate into something beautiful and valuable.
So good luck to the hard working staff- and students- of Hartsdown Academy, and to the parents who are supporting this new chapter in everyone’s lives. As is usual in these media harrowings, the school has the least ability to respond publicly, being bound by confidentiality and discretion and professionalism. unlike many of their detractors. I hope everyone goes away and leaves them to get on with their job. And I hope the next time people rush for their Twitch forks and Bows of Burning Gold, they consider the children who suffer by proxy in this faux battlefield.