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Straighten your Tie!

Do school uniforms really benefit children’s learning? Far from it, claim schools that are ditching uniforms altogether. Kate Hilpern reports.

‘Tuck that shirt in!’ ‘That’s a detention for forgetting your tie again!’ Reprimands like this will probably sound as familiar to your offspring as it did back in your own school days.

Despite the fact that most kids loathe the Victorian and Edwardian influenced fashions and suffocating top buttons of school uniforms, over 90 per cent of all schools in England insist on having one. When Michael Gove was education secretary, he even published a white paper urging all schools to introduce not just uniform, but blazers and ties, reflecting the long-held belief by Conservatives that high performance and strict uniform are inextricably linked. Labour has by and large agreed, with Charles Clarke having insisted that ‘uniforms are good for discipline and school ethos, giving pupils a real sense of identity with their school.’ Many schools cut no slack. Not all that long ago, Hanson School, a secondary school in Bradford, sent home a whopping 200 pupils just for for breaching their uniform policy.

But what about the schools that defy convention and argue that, actually, a non-uniform policy can improve learning? Some of the highest-achieving countries, they point out, have no uniform at all, with Finland – which tops international league tables – among them.

In an age when politicians preach diversity and choice, the insistence on uniform is contradictory, insists Kate Mason, head teacher at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, Devon, which abolished its uniform 11 years ago. ‘We believe all students are different and we believe in celebrating that. Our school is oversubscribed, our results are better than ever, our students are confident and comfortable. Even if there was something I wanted to fix, I wouldn’t do it with uniform.’

Tom Lewis, head at Dolphin School in Berkshire, agrees. ‘A lot of schools say they nurture the individual, yet everyone looks the same. At the heart of what we do is promoting freedom of expression, individuality and having your own voice, so having no uniform fits perfectly. And actually, the more I’ve got under the skin of this school, the more I’ve realised that the children are more engaged and motivated than any other pupils I’ve worked with.’ Whilst much is made of uniforms enhancing school pride, unity and community spirit, heads of schools with no uniforms argue that these can be achieved in other ways, including shared values, and it’s impossible to deny the tremendous loyalty from students towards their no-uniform schools. It’s as if these kids recognise the privilege they get and return it with good and responsible behaviour, says Lewis. ‘As for the argument that school uniforms can save parents money, I’d point out that all children have clothes for home anyway,’ he says.

At Frensham Heights School in Surrey, there’s a ‘sort of self-imposed uniform among the students – a perfectly sensible one of jeans or leggings and a comfortable top,’ says Emily Wood, director of admissions, who believes that school uniforms are distracting. ‘If you ask our teachers who have taught in more traditional British schools, they will say how liberating it is for them not to have to spend time at the beginning of each lesson or out and about in the school telling children to straighten their tie or do up their top button. Instead, they can concentrate on actual teaching.’ Chris Price, headteacher at Cherwell School, Oxford, agrees. ‘We do particularly feel the benefit a lack of uniform has when it comes to staff –student relationships which tend to be very good in this school. It allows staff to concentrate on student learning and their wider success which uniform issues can sometimes complicate,’ he explains.

Sarah Thomas, head of Bryanston School in Dorset – which favours a dress code over a uniform - agrees, adding that having no uniform helps prepare young people for the workplace. ‘It encourages pupils to take responsibility for their appearance, as they will have to when they leave school, and to learn how to express their individual style while still appearing smart,’ she says.

Very occasionally, students wear a t-shirt with an inappropriate logo or a skirt too short at St Christopher School in Letchworth, admits headteacher Richard Palmer. ‘We want to encourage young people to experiment and discover the individual they are, so I suppose it’s inevitable. That said, it’s rare and always sorted out amicably and easily,’ he says.

One claim often made for uniform is that it helps stop bullying, for example by rich kids lording it over poor ones with their flashy tops and expensive trainers or by children picking out difference in order to tease. But Palmer says he has never once had to deal with a bullying issue sparked by clothing. ‘Nobody judges you by clothing here and we never get people wearing designer labels,’ he says.

School uniforms, concludes Palmer, hark back to a command-and-control era when children were put in their place and were to be seen and not heard. ‘We favour a modern, progressive approach that focuses on mutual respect and encouraging students to take responsibility for themselves.

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