Recently, Hanson Academy, in Bradford, made the headlines after running a school-gate spot-check on school uniform which resulted in large numbers of students being sent home to change various items of clothing. The media made much of the fact that 152 were sent home on the first day, a Tuesday (there were fewer mentions of the figures for the remaining three days of that week, which were, respectively, 63, 33 and seven).
Unsurprisingly, the under-the-line comment warriors fired up their devices and lined up facing each other. There’s no point in summarising the opposing views. Just fill them in yourself.
As we shall see later, though, the whole spat had an interesting and very positive outcome.
We have, of course, been here before, many times and the core issues around school uniforms are always the same: Should we have one? Why? What should it be like?
And there you have, in those three straightforward questions, the potential to generate a filing cabinet of governors’ minutes, an army of sweating postal delivery workers, a field day of local newspaper articles and readers’ letters, a slot on regional television, a phone-in segment on Loose Women and, with luck, a joke from Paul Merton on Have I Got News for You.
So what’s all the fuss about? To some extent there is still a whiff of ideology about it all. One defining mark of the more progressive schools of the 1960s and 70s was a positive and open rejection of school uniforms, and there are still teachers, and parents, who see uniform as a mark of an inappropriately authoritarian approach to a liberal education.
Maybe that is a bit old hat now, but there are lots of legitimate practical worries, cost probably being the main one. A decent blazer can cost £40 and it seems unlikely that many new entrant 11-year-olds will already have the right shoes, trousers, shirts and shoes. So in the present climate, some households might be back to the position of those of my friends – and there were some – who passed the 11-plus but could not go to grammar school because of the cost of the uniform.
The cost issues, though, as some schools have shown, can be dealt with, given the will and resources.
But then there’s my own personal plea to those governors and senior leaders who are eager to introduce uniform, which is to remember that it is the foot soldiers who have to enforce the rules. I wasn’t a comprehensive school house head for long, but during that time one of my abiding irritations was the frequent need to have uniform-related disciplinary confrontations with students who were already permanently operating on the brink of suspension. Sometimes I felt pushed into a sort of game...
“For crying out loud, Kevin, before you set foot on the top corridor tuck your shirt in, pull your tie up – and hang on, I think there’s a pair of black shoes in that big smelly box in my office.”
That there’s another side to this I do not, however, dispute. If successful and sincere heads, parents and governors are certain that uniform has a positive effect on learning and behaviour, who am I to disagree?
And if the senior leadership is prepared to live up to its beliefs by making the rules non-negotiable, taking the strain themselves, and sending students home to change if they fail to comply, then that, surely, is the where the logic leads.
So how did the Hanson Academy story develop? What happened once the media got fed up of it, as they do?
In fact, Hanson’s principal, Elizabeth Churton, sat down and wrote, for the SSAT website, a remarkable and revelatory inside-story blog that goes far beyond the detail of a bog-standard home-school uniform argument, and sheds light on the way a big urban secondary school relates to its community.
Ms Churton begins by expressing surprise, not only at the amount of publicity that her action attracted internationally as well as across the UK, but at the way the opinions, of all shades, continue to come in.
Most remarkable, though – and there are real lessons here – is her account of how she and her team handled their relationship with the most hostile group of parents. Read it for yourself, but here’s just a taste:
“At the beginning of our zero-tolerance initiative, this same group (of parents) had set up a Facebook group entitled ‘Boycott Hanson Academy’. As the week went by and as we communicated with those involved, the title of the page changed to ‘Parents of Hanson Academy’. By the time the parents had met with my colleague and me over tea and Danish pastries, not only had the group been renamed ‘Friends of Hanson Academy’, but the parents had committed to becoming the founder members of the Hanson Academy Parent-Teacher Association’.”
It is an awe-inspiring object lesson in enlightened school leadership, is it not, from which we can all learn? Management wonks would call it a “win-win”. And for once they’d be spot on.
Further informationYou can read Elizabeth Churton’s SSAT blog at www.ssatuk.co.uk/hanson-academy-uniform-policy
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1