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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Michael Byrne – Super head

Employment laws don’t appear to apply at Waterloo Road, the fictional failing Rochdale Comprehensive School.  This may be a neoliberal vision of the not too distant future.  But, for now, Michael Byrne, the new super head would not have got away with interviewing and appointing candidates for the post of deputy alone.  Technically though, he didn’t interview anyone, as, right on cue the tragic personal lives of pupils Phoenix and Harley Taylor interrupted proceedings. The suspension of the interview process did not, however, prevent both Tom Clarkson, and new teacher Sian Diamond being appointed deputy head teacher.

Due to her poor spelling, Byrne decreed that Janeece is now on probation.  Apart from an instruction to pass a training course, there appeared to be little reference to a performance review or appraisal.  Surely this would form part of any self-respecting LEA’s contract with its employees.  He then failed to act upon the sexual harassment  of Janeece by a gang of new pupils. It would appear that neoliberal heavens require crap managers.

Michael Byrne observes the leadership qualities of his pupils

A neoliberal vision of the school of the future might not, however, include Byrne’s discipline policy. Maybe he hasn’t yet read Behaviour and Discipline in Schools: A guide for head teachers and school staff. A reading of this guide hardly provides an endorsement for Byrne’s response to the criminal activity of new pupil, Tariq.  While his gang were given a series of detentions, Tariq was given a prefects badge.  This was due to his apparent leadership qualities.  Perhaps Byrne thinks he is dealing with a member of the Bullingdon Club?

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.