School uniforms won’t save education
On Tuesday, police were called to intervene at Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Kent, after 60 children were denied entry for infringing the school’s uniform rules.
The school’s recently appointed headteacher, Matthew Tate, argues that tougher disciplinary measures on uniform will encourage focus and hard work in the classroom. It’s a familiar pedagogic argument – cracking down on minor infringements prevents disruptive behaviour from escalating. Many state schools have adopted tougher rules and enforcements, on uniforms and behaviour, with the hope that this will improve GCSE exam results.
School uniforms are generally a good thing. They can create a level playing field of appearance for children from all sorts of backgrounds. They help foster the value of universalism over particularism and are designed to focus kids’ attention on learning, not their appearance. Uniforms also work well in introducing adult norms of formality and public life to the next generation.
For many, though, this is why school uniforms are a problem. In an age of personal identity and questioning of public and private boundaries, critics argue that school uniforms are a stuffy, and often class-based, imposition on children – particularly girls.
Despite attempts to enforce older notions of discipline, many state schools end up being a caricature of formality. Enforcing uniform rules won’t magically compensate for the decline in adult authority and authority derived from knowledge – especially when many aspects of the UK education system downplay knowledge-based teaching and learning. Schools that do take teaching and learning seriously, and have the results to show for it, are frequently rapped on the knuckles for an absence of data analysis, limited safeguarding policies or a lack of diversity or healthy-eating options. The measure of a good school is no longer success in teaching and learning, but whether it is performing roles normally associated with social workers.
Pride in uniform does not inspire pupils to take learning seriously. But engaging teachers and proper lesson content might just encourage good behaviour in children. School uniforms are designed to prevent distractions from the important business of learning. Today, school-uniform policies too often become a substitute for inspiring children with ideas and knowledge.
Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.