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).
Continue reading “Uniform Infringements”

Advertisements

The logic of school refusal

Truancy is a problem.  Children should go to school, parents should ensure their attendance and schools should do more. Its common sense. The present Government are keen to tackle the issue, giving schools more powers and issuing more punitive sanctions to parents. In a speech last year, Michael Gove said:

“we have got to tackle the truancy tragedy in England”

Notwithstanding the educational related disadvantage that children who truant may face, truancy might be an understandable response to school life.  Jenn Ashworth writes an interesting article in the Guardian.  She describes refusing to go to school (though technically this is school refusal not truanting).  Her rationale appears quite logical.  Why would anyone volunteer to spend five days a week in a crowded building where everyone is dressed the same, and where your every move is controlled by a bell?

Read Jenn Ashworth’s article in the Guardian.

Continue reading “The logic of school refusal”

Summer Skirts for Boys

“And sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn, just what it would take a child a night to learn”  Billy Bragg – The Passion

Today the BBC ran this story.  Chris Whitehead, a pupil at Impington Village College attended school wearing a skirt.  His rationale?  The weather was hot, school rules ban the wearing of shorts in hot weather, but, crucially, not skirts.

Chris Whitehead’s decision therefore, was logical and consistent with the school’s uniform policy.   Of course, in protesting in this way the uniform policy of the school has been exposed as inconsistent.

The loophole in the school rules uncovered, he, appropriately came to school in a skirt.  He apparently got some teasing, but he appears not to mind.  The school, to its credit, praised the way Chris protested, and have decided to review their uniform policy.  Maybe the school will, after all, rectify its inconsistency.

Uniforms are used by schools to signify gender (amongst other functions).  Skirts are normally associated with femininity, as opposed to masculinity. Impington Village College probably felt it didn’t need to specify that only girls are expected to wear skirts.  This article of clothing, hitherto unquestionably female, has been questioned, by a 12-year-old boy. Well done Chris.

Impington Village College may choose to react by specifying a skirt length (for girls) reaching to just above their ankles, thereby scuppering any pupil’s desire to stay cooler in the summer.  However, lets hope they do the sensible thing and allow boys to wear shorts in the hot weather.

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.

Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools

Nick Gibb is the new Minister for Schools.  This is not surprising, given that previously he has shadowed this position.

He thinks traditional forms of teaching and discipline are good, so, along with his colleague Michael Gove we might expect to see not only more uniforms, but rote learning, and on the spot detentions. However, Gibb is also anti bureaucracy and wants to leave headteachers to get on with the job.  Which, presumably means they are free not to implement traditional forms of teaching and discipline.  We shall see.

Since taking up his new position, he is reported, according to the Guardian to have said:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

So, apparently he believes that some Universities are ‘rubbish’ , though which ones is not clear, though it seems Oxbridge does not come under the rubbish category.  Neither does Durham, one might assume, given that Gibb studied Law there.   Presumably he also believes that a graduate with excellent knowledge of physics will make a better teacher than  someone with, say, a third class degree and a PGCE.  However, there has been no announcement yet from the Government that teaching qualifications are to be dispensed with. We’ll wait and see.

Back in 2006, Steve Richards interviewed him, about his school days, for Teachers TV.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It is clear from this what kind of school he prefers: Maidstone Grammar good, Thornes House Wakefield bad.  However, he might disagree with the Minister for Education, Michael Gove on the issue of uniforms if his experience of Canadian schools is anything to go by.  No uniform there, but they did start the day by singing ‘O Canada’

If you watch the video, then listen for this quote from Gibb when Richards asks him about the different intakes of the schools he attended:

“I never knew what the intake was, as a kid I never, you never sort of assess that, but I did notice very much the differing quality of teaching and the ethos of the school”

So,while he was oblivious to the backgrounds of his fellow pupils in the numerous schools he attended, he was able to discern what good teaching is, and he stands by the validity of this selective, partial judgement. 

Continue reading “Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools”

Michael Gove, Schools, discipline, standards, and ties

Michael Gove is the new Minister for Schools.

What can we expect?  Well, he is keen on returning to traditional values in education.  This is a popularist term, but is rather vague, suggesting that anything in the past, specifically the Victorian age is good. Unfortunately many social ills were popular in the past, such as high infant mortality, child prostitution, the absence of a welfare state, no minimum wage, and so on.

Gove does get more specific.   School ties help raise standards (oh, and blazers).

Wearing a tie has brought Catherine Tate's Lauren educational success

Yes, he really does believe this.  In this article in the Daily Mail he is reported as saying:

“It is no coincidence that many of the best-performing state schools have proper school uniforms”

The conservatives carried out this ‘research’, looking at GCSE results and school uniform, and so claim this as evidence.  Their research findings did not, however isolate the key item of school uniform as some of the most successful schools did not have blazers. 

Most sociological research on educational attainment has left out school uniforms as a predictor of attainment, instead they have highlighted social class, ethnicity, and gender.  Inequalities in educational attainment are persistent,  even existing in traditional times,  however, maybe ties are indeed the solution.  I doubt it, however.

Gove also wants to restore discipline by using ex-soldiers in schools. However it is not sure whether these soldiers will need to have a minimum degree classification of a 2:2 before they are allowed to become teachers. The Conservatives have promised to raise the standard of teacher training by limiting entry to only those who achieve a minimum 2:2 degree.