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Play It Smart – 3 Questions About School Uniform That Heads Need To Ask Themselves

If your uniform policy is consistent, up to date and clearly communicated, says Vic Goddard, there's no reason why enforcing it should make the front page...

  • Play It Smart – 3 Questions About School Uniform That Heads Need To Ask Themselves

At the start of this academic year, I received the usual phone calls from different news outlets asking me to sit on a sofa to discuss the perennial, thorny issue of compulsory school uniform – with the focus this year, of course, on a particular school and headteacher in Kent.

As someone who has had a bit of media scrutiny in the past, I can empathise with just how embattled the school will have felt with the Daily Fail parked outside. The problem with ‘journalistic interest’ like this is that as professionals, we are not going to rebut many of the stories that run attacking school policies because it may look critical of specific parents – or even worse, highlight specific challenges that a young person may have. Instead, we have to stand in silence and accept the stick being poked in our ribs by whichever media outlets are covering the ‘scoop’. Which naturally makes us ‘aloof’, or even ‘arrogant’.

I was asked on Twitter for my thoughts on the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to things like this, and I replied that I know very little as it wouldn’t be a phrase I use. Besides, even in schools that say this is their stance, there are so many nuances. So how do we avoid being in the position of being spread over the pages of the national media any time we enforce a policy that may be unpopular?

I like to think of it in terms of a series of questions I need to ask myself every time something is changed or introduced:

Q1 - How ‘uniform’ is our policy for all young people?

Consistency is the key factor that can sometimes cause problems for schools. I am amazed at how observant some of our young people, and their parents/carers, are when they think someone else is getting away with something that they are being picked up on. Of course, consistency of enforcement can be difficult when you understand the diverse resources of the population you serve.

With uniform, the answer for us has been to make ours as affordable and accessible as possible; you can buy most of it from ASDA for a few pounds.

This, however, is an aspect I think we can improve on as a sector. It’s easy for us to reply (although probably not to their faces) when a parent/carer tells us they cannot afford to replace something with, “I bet you’d find the money to replace your mobile phone/TV etc”. This is where we can miss the point. It’s not the parent/carer who is being humiliated. If their uniform policy is so important to a school, then they may have to support it by helping some students not to be singled out by the poor decisions of the people that are supposed to look out for them.

We have spare uniforms and a washer/dryer in school to help some of our young people comply, since in some cases it’s not that they don’t want to – it’s just that they’re unable to.

Q2 – Is our policy still relevant and appropriate for the world we live in?

We fell into this trap at Passmores just last year. We have a policy on hairstyles that includes no tramlines. The problem we had was that the 2015 fashion, mainly set by the Premier League it seems, of having a very distinct parting meant our students were having a tramline put in to improve this.

Quite rightly, the pastoral team were picking them up about this and I started to have a few parents/carers make contact. The problem I had was that it looked really smart – in fact, it was really only a ‘short back and sides’ and would have been deemed very uncool only a handful of years ago. So we spoke to our parent and student councils and realised that the policy hadn’t changed since the 80s, and that the likelihood of Kid and Play-style tramlines making a comeback was slim!

Q3 – Have we made sure that everyone is clear about our expectations and given them time to respond?

I always talk about our expectations to parents/carers at our open evening before they have chosen their secondary school, and with them on their induction evening prior to their young person starting with us. I worry that it may come across as negative, but by doing it then I can be absolutely certain that if they choose to send their child to Passmores, they are aware of what is required and how things need to be; therefore, they also choose to follow our rules – all of them.

The bottom line is that a policy decision needs to be fair and balanced for the young person, but also needs to be communicated well prior to, and during it being implemented. It sounds straightforward, but I can assure you that this won’t be the last time the topic of uniform comes up – and you will probably see me sitting on a sofa saying the same things to a breakfast TV presenter this time next year!

Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; you can follow him at @vicgoddard

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