Uniform Infringements

The start of a new school year has been, predictably, accompanied by stories of pupils falling foul of new school uniform regulations.

As if to highlight the absurdity of rules, reports have featured cases where trousers have been deemed verboten due to being the ‘wrong shade’ of ‘charcoal.  Several news items from across the nation tell stories of pupils turned away at the school gates or placed in isolation and the parental anger at the apparent unfair treatment of their child for what they perceive to be a minor infringement.  Here is a small selection of news reports from the past week:

Pupils banned from Cheltenham Bournside School for wearing wrong trousers

Mum slams school’s ‘strict’ uniform policy which says boys must wear £16 trousers

School put 150 pupils in isolation because they were wearing the wrong uniform

400 Ysgol Penglais pupils in detention over uniform

School sends pupils home for wearing wrong shade of grey trousers

One common sense response is that these are the rules, the uniform requirements are provided in advance and so failing to adhere to them will result in some form of sanction.  If we accept that school uniforms are natural and that a failure to comply is evidence of anti-social behaviour that needs to be addressed, then we can leave the argument, unexamined, there.

But, any social scientific understanding of any aspect of life starts with a requirement to make the familiar strange and ask some critical questions about what is going on here.

One of the issues raised surrounds the requirement to purchase branded uniform items from a designated supplier.  School logos are embroidered on trousers and skirts and blazers have school badges pre-sewn on them. This means that parents cannot simply buy an item from a supermarket, they must buy a regulation issue item, often at a higher cost.   In other words, the business of school uniform suppling takes on the appearance of a cartel.    So, we could ask why is there a need for trousers and skirts to be branded?  Schools do have a response to this and seek to justify their uniform policies.  For example,  Heaton Manor School in Newcastle states:

Heaton Manor School believes that uniform increases a sense of pride and belonging to our school. Uniform also helps to address social differences between children.

So, uniform is for the collective good, as well as contributing towards social justice, therefore the school is justified in sanctioning you if you do not adequately demonstrate a commitment, via clothing, to these ideals.

This is deeply problematic and one would hope any scholar of education would critically examine such a statement in an attempt to understand what schools do to our children.

Uniform is a way that schools might seek to create a group identity.  We could revisit the founding perspectives in the sociology of education to understand why a group collective conscience might be a good idea, particularly as a means of maintaining discipline (Durkheim, 1973).  We can see this reflected in schools’ claims that consistency is needed to achieve a sense of pride and to maintain standards.  As Maguire et al (2010) observe, a tightly enforced uniform policy signifies to parents and the community that the school is maintaining order and that it takes discipline seriously. It is a means of managing risk.  Having a uniform is a form of social control, but this might not necessarily be positive.  Creating an ethos and a group identify can also deny individuality and, where society is based on inequality and conflict may be a means of maintaining and reproducing these inequalities. For example, we can go back to Thorstein Veblen:

The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real or ostensible (1899, p. 78).

Or, we can look to Foucault, (see the section Docile Bodies in Discipline and Punish) and consider how uniforms may be a way of controlling and surveilling the body (see also Meadmore and Symes, 1996).

What of the claim that uniforms help to “address social differences”?  This is meant to appeal to our sense of social justice.  Of course, we need a uniform so as not to expose those children from deprived backgrounds whose parents can’t afford the latest fashions.  This is spurious.  If, as a society, we were that bothered about social differences we would address those social differences rather than use uniforms to pretend they didn’t exist. But, to suggest that uniforms have the power to disguise social inequalities is to ignore how social class is embodied.  Using a uniform in an attempt to ‘address social differences’, i.e. pretend they don’t exist might help us to deny the existence of the pernicious impact of social class inequality, but nevertheless social class remains a ‘zombie’ stalking schools (Reay, 2006).
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Educating Greater Manchester (1)

The Educating series of fly on the wall accounts of everyday school life returned this week with Educating Greater Manchester filmed at Harrop Fold School in Salford. The series has become formulaic, with each weekly episode featuring a different aspect of school life. This week attention was focused on the ethnic diversity of the pupil population and the various responses to this diversity.  If the Educating series is a documentary, it is not investigative, and rarely involves a critical exploration the context in which events in the school occur.  Instead it appears to be more concerned with the emotive and providing entertainment.  Nevertheless, the school exists and the events do occur in such a context.

Focused on telling the story of Rani, a year 7 pupil from Syria, this week’s episode revealed the existence of racism in the school, though this word was rarely used, by the teachers.   Instead, various phrases to diffuse the potential harm the racist incidents might cause included:

You don’t mean it though, do you?

It was a joke

It was thoughtless more than malicious

Whilst there was a recognition that such incidents were unacceptable and needed tackling, the reluctance to label such incidents as ‘racist’ (see Pearce, 2014) might be seen as evidence of a tolerance for everyday racist discourses (Grigg, K. and Manderson, 2015; Miller, 2015).

Personal stories were also developed through direct to camera interviews.  At times these felt overly intrusive, such as when Marud, another pupil from Syria was asked about his father:

Do you think he’s alive?

As this episode progressed, so did Rani’s friendship with fellow Year 7 pupil, Jack.  Rani also transitioned from the SEND class where he was placed to help him develop his English language skills, to mainstream classes.  The transition was celebrated with a ‘graduation’, reflecting the effort of the individual involved. Whilst the move from this group might be positive for Rani, the existence of a celebration to mark a moving away from the SEND class is somewhat problematic.  What about those pupils for whom a move to mainstream classes may not be appropriate?

Finally, in a scene where we shouldn’t laugh, but probably did, we see Rani taking the lead in exercising their artistic tendencies on the dirt of a white van.  Rani writes ‘Fock’ and is followed by other boys drawing ever increasingly graphic phalluses.  How everyone laughed, including the head teacher.  He asks the assembled miscreants:

 What are they going to be thinking of the blue blazer?

Emphasising the importance of the group identity, he reminds us scholars of education that we need to re-read Durkheim (1973) from time to time.

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