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If You Must Enforce a Strict School Uniform Policy, Do it Consistently

A strict school uniform policy won’t automatically lead to better results – but failing to enforce rules consistently is a sure recipe for disaster...

  • If You Must Enforce a Strict School Uniform Policy, Do it Consistently

Is there any evidence that school uniform affects learning? In a word, no.

Or rather, I should say, I’m not aware of any beyond weak testimonials offered by uniform manufactures and the personal anecdotes of true believers.

Where there is reputable research, it’s equivocal.

Most children in most countries around the world don’t put on a special outfit to be educated in. The UK is one of a relatively small number of nations where uniform matters.

It matters so much, in fact, that it’s rare to find a school which does not specify the clothing pupils must wear to attend.

Indeed, most go to some trouble to provide specific information on exactly what sort of shirts, trousers, shoes, blazers etc are required and, in most cases, also proscribe verboten items of apparel.

When I was a student in the 1980s, my secondary school conducted a total war against the wearing of terry toweling socks.

For some reason the merest hint of a fluffy white ankle would be enough to tip our Deputy Head, Mr Noonan, into uncontrollable paroxysms of rage.

Goodness knows why we wanted to don the dreadful things – these days such socks are rightly shunned as irredeemably naff, but the past is a foreign country: we did things differently there.

Stick to the rules

So, why do English schools make such a big deal about uniforms?

Well, although it would very difficult to conduct a study isolating the effects of wearing particular clothes on student achievement, it’s probably a lot easier to look at how uniforms might affect social norms and in-group/out-group behaviours.

There’s a lot of research on how institutional cultures impact on behaviour, and it’s not too great a leap to suppose that the culture of a school is likely to linked in some way to attainment.

The point is, school uniform is, in and of itself, irrelevant. I don’t suppose it matters whether children are wearing top hat and tails, polo shirts or boiler suits. What does matter is that if a school has a uniform policy – and there’s certainly no legislation which compels it do so so – then that policy ought to be enforced.

Every now and then, the Daily Mail covers a story in which a school has a rule and – shockingly – decides to enforce it.

Reactions to these ‘news’ items are sadly predictable: massed outrage that institutions behave so callously and waste precious learning time on enforcing the pointless, tin-pot directives of a mindless martinet.

Where’s the line?

Cards on the table: I couldn’t give a stuff what decision schools make about students’ uniforms.

If they choose not to have one, then everyone understands where they are: anything goes.

Understandably, though, few schools would be happy with allowing students to wear literally whatever they want, and so will choose to have at least a dress code if not a uniform.

The choice then becomes, should that policy, whatever it is, be enforced or not?

If you choose to be lenient regarding some of your own school rules then, understandably, students may be confused about exactly where the line is drawn.

Can they talk in assembly? Is it OK to drink a can of Monster in maths lessons? Should they tell their new geography teacher to fuck off?

There comes a point at which every school will draw the line, but an awful lot of time and energy is often spent on establishing where exactly said line actually is.

It’s much easier if everyone knows exactly where they stand, from the start.

Because when schools – or individual teachers – decide not to enforce rules, what do children learn? Ultimately, they learn that rules are negotiable, that no doesn’t necessarily mean no, and that adult authority can be safely ignored.

Compliance and cost

But back to uniforms.

One argument levelled against them is that they can be very expensive. Kitting out two or more children for the new academic year is a pricey business; so as long the policy is clear, parents only have themselves to blame if they choose to buy clothing which fails to comply with a school’s expectations.

The only thing to add is that I would hope that in cases of financial hardship, any reasonable headteacher would be able to provide some sort of assistance to ensure everyone can be suitably attired.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, the latest of which, Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap, will be published in January 2019 (Crown House). Follow him on Twitter at @DavidDidau.

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