An article today on the BBC website reports on a school in England which sent home 150 students for failing to adhere to its strict uniform policy (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-29911712). The article is indicative of a recent trend across the UK for a return to formal school uniforms. This trend has also been evident in Scotland, as many schools have introduced uniform where none previously existed, or replaced a previous ‘casual’ or comfortable uniform with one that is extremely formal, including a blazer and tie. All sorts of reasons are put forward for this, including:

  • Preparing young people for work by getting them to dress properly (although I note here that there are few jobs that insist on ties for girls).
  • Improving school ethos and fostering a sense of identity. For example, one secondary school justified its tightening of uniform policy to parents by stating: “The introduction of a full formal uniform is the most effective way to ensure a visible daily commitment to and identification with the school. […] The introduction of a rigorous and formal dress code is the most effective way of ensuring that this develops in the future. The likely impact on our young people will be to encourage their sense of pride in their school, develop their sense of community and hopefully instill (sic) a more rigorous approach to all aspects of school life.”
  • In another secondary school, the uniform in general, and the tie in particular has been posited as being necessary for reasons of safety and effective learning; it is said to improve safety buy allowing identification of intruders (presumably not in uniform) and posters on classroom walls exhort student to bring the three essential items for learning – a pen, a jotter and a tie.

These are strong claims, frequently made in support of school uniform. But are they backed by the research evidence? Is there a causal link between formal school uniform and school ethos? These include a sense of belonging and school identity, as well as student behaviour and attitude. Do schools without a uniform have a worse ethos?
The simple answer is that there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal. Claims that uniform improves school ethos have little basis in research, and can be seen as little more than assertions (e.g. see http://gradworks.umi.com/36/17/3617787.html) . Moreover, two decades of school effectiveness and school improvement policy and research have proven only one thing: that there is no hard and fast recipe for improving schools. Schools are messy and complex social organisations, and what works in one school may well prove to be ineffective in the next.
That said, there are certain features that research suggests are common to good schools. In this short paper, I offer some observations about some of these common features, and then comment specifically on the research concerning school uniform.

Features of successful schools
Good schools might be characterised as places where:

  • Young people feel safe. Effective action to deal with bullying, teachers who listen to student concerns and an ethos of respect (student to student, teacher to teacher, and especially between students and teachers).
  • Young people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them. This right is enshrined in Scottish law but despite this, many schools are undemocratic places, which often play only lip service to the views of students. More genuine participation might involve a student council being allowed to debate key issues, including whether there should be a school uniform and what form it should take. And yet discussion of this topic is often banned.
  • School ethos is good. This is about more than school image and compliance; it concerns the school being a thriving community, with opportunities for civic engagement by students. Extra-curricular (e.g. lunchtime clubs) and co-curricular (e.g. a youth parliament) activities are known to be effective ways of enhancing school ethos, because they offer opportunities for students to participate in the civic society of the school.
  • There are clear rules, expectations and procedures. This is especially important in respect of student behaviour. Schools where there is a high proportion of uninspiring teaching and inconsistent behaviour management tend to experience behaviour problems. Effective schools deal effectively with misbehaviour, both through expectations and environment, and through clear procedures to deal with misbehaviour when it occurs.
  • There are effective strategies for a varied approach to teaching and learning. Schools with a one dimensional approach to learning and teaching, which focus on getting through the curriculum content, tend not to challenge students to think and develop cognitively. When students are not engaged and motivated, they learn less effectively. Good schools are those that succeed in bringing the curriculum to life through powerful teaching. In respect of this, and the above point about behaviour management, the work of the American educational psychologist Alfie Kohn is interesting – he advocates an engaging curriculum as an alternative to behaviour management systems based around rewards (see Punished by Rewards – http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/pbracwak.htm).
  • There is a well-articulated vision in the school about the purposes of education. One must ask whether education is just about exam results or whether it is about developing active and effective citizens who can contribute to a better world. These questions are especially pertinent in the light of the four capacities of the new Curriculum for Excellence.
  • Communication is effective. Clear lines of communication between the school and parents are important, as is clear communication within school. Regular assemblies have been shown to help this process.

Does school uniform enhance school ethos?
As indicated, school uniforms have been claimed to:

  • Raise attainment
  • Improve behaviour
  • Enhance school climate
  • Improve attendance

In fact, such claims are largely unsupported by research evidence. There is little British research on the topic, but the American research suggests that such claims are anecdotal and misleading. So what do we know about uniforms?

  • School uniforms are a practice dating back to the 16th century in the United Kingdom, and are most commonly found elsewhere in former UK colonies – in many other countries they are uncommon outside of the private sector (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_uniforms_by_country). Many countries in Europe and North America and do not have school uniforms.
  • In the UK, some excellent schools do not have a uniform. A good example is James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh – a high achieving school with an excellent ethos based upon activity and a strong sense of a school community. The 2010 school HMIE inspection reported that the school had particular strengths:
    • The active contribution of all staff to the life of the school and their positive relationships with young people.
    • Courteous, articulate and confident young people who are very proud of their school.
    • The impressive range of activities for young people to broaden their experiences and achieve widely especially in music, sports and international education.
    • The attainment of many young people in national examinations.
    • The committed leadership of the head teacher in promoting a vibrant culture.
  • School uniforms are often found in excellent schools – but this can only be claimed to be a correlation, not a causal relationship. In other words, there are other factors that make these schools excellent, and the school uniform is not necessarily the factor that makes them so.
  • School uniforms can work well when they are supported by parents and students (i.e. instituted as a result of a process of consultation). Conversely, they can create a point of resistance and potentially cause behaviour problems when imposed.
  • Uniforms can create a halo effect – creating a better impression of a school than is actually merited. This can serve to cover up problems.
  • Some research suggests that school uniforms can suppress individuality and creativity – arguably qualities encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence.

In the light of the above, I would suggest that claims that school uniforms will improve school ethos are not supported by research. Of course, this does not necessarily matter if students, parents and teachers support their use. But we should avoid justifying them on spurious grounds. And moreover, there are also good reasons for not enforcing uniforms, including cost, practicality and safety; for instance, recent media reports point to the high incidence of sexual harassment faced by girls in school uniform (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/collective-responsibility-on-child-sex-abuse-9829611.html).
These are emotive issues, characterised by deeply-held views, and I am therefore sure that my observations will stimulate debate. As ever, I welcome constructive comments on the blog, in response….

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Formal school uniform and school ethos

  1. This is a debate that seems to rumble on and on and has lots of permutations and a standard set of stock responses and justifications as you have set out here. I personally feel quite ambivalent about uniform. I think the claims made about it are inflated, it represents an out-dated method of control and conformity but it is definitely easier to get out the house in the morning and not have to worry about what to wear if your favourite t-shirt isn’t clean. Still, I’m sure we could get round that if necessary. Interestingly, the non-uniform school you talk about has a small number of pupils who counter-defiantly insist on wearing the uniform! I know at the school 2 of my children went to, before the (much welcomed by parents) new uniform regime was introduced, one of the girls who’d been head girl was invited to a civic reception at Stirling Castle with the Queen and other head boys and girls from across the authority. She was the only one not in a blazer which caused her a fairly acute degree of embarrassment at the time. One of my children goes to a special school. The thought of enforcing uniform there is simply absurd. Why is it then so important in mainstream?
    Firstly I think we need to stop believing the improvement claims being made about it that you document here. Secondly, I think we need to realise that school uniform is a vestige of the UK and its colonies – it hasn’t really been all that popular elsewhere (OK maybe China as well…) Thirdly, uniform and many other features of today’s 21st century schools are an allusion to (and maybe also an aspiration to) a divisive, elitist and undemocratic system – the elite fee-paying private schools. School uniform, the house system, Latin mottos; prefects, head boys and girls – all these are features of elite fee paying schools (and Hogwarts, BTW!) which exist mainly to reproduce elites and maintain the natural social order of things in our deeply divided society. This is plainly obvious when you consider the number of cabinet ministers who were educated at a small number of elite fee paying schools. All these features seem to say – we might not ever get there but want to be like you. If we want a fairer more equitable society, this is not a good aspiration, and it’s definitely not a good message. There must different ways of doing things. You talk about democracy – it never seems to feature in any school motto I’ve seen – maybe that would be a good starting point?

    1. Spot on – a great, and thoughtful response to my post. Interesting observations about students standing out in a culture of conformity where uniform is valued, and incisive observations about how we aspire to be like the public schools – as illustrated in the appeal of the Hogwarts meme!

  2. Hi Mark
    There has been almost no reputable research in this area so of course there is no convincing research evidence either way – there are always contrary examples in the complicated multifactor issue of school ethos. .
    I am fairly neutral personally on the issue, but as a headteacher in several different parts of Scotland I could not ignore (nor have any other headteachers I know ignored) the parents and school communities they worked in. Many parents judge a school with reference to whether the children are in uniform or not. I would like to see someone applying for the job of headteacher and saying that they would abandon school uniform. The running on this is made by the parents. There wasn’t a single parent on any of the School Boards/Parent Councils I worked with in twenty years as a headteacher who did not want a well enforced school uniform policy. Many parents use uniform as a proxy for judging quality of the school, since it is so complicated to judge many of the technical aspects of schooling. For them, the key judgement is nothing to do with a measurable effect in some controlled study in another country or context but the very direct question of who is in charge of the school?’. By and large if children are wearing what they want, parents worry that other aspects of the school will be disorderly – it is a culturally determined attitude I agree but that’s where we are. The example you quote of a school in one of the most affluent and advantaged parts of Edinburgh is very untypical of most of Scotland – that is also a specific culture that has developed, in a high achieving school many of whose parents are graduates. Neighbouring state schools all pursue a uniform policy.
    In every school community where I was headteacher the overwhelming majority of parents wanted children in uniform for practical and pride reasons. We developed a policy through consultation and engagement and latterly, over the past few years, partly as a result I’m sure of TV programmes portraying ‘cool’ kids in fictional or real schools wearing uniform, there has been a real swing towards traditional uniform among pupils. We noticed this in Lornshill latterly, where S4 wanted the chance to wear blazers as S5 and S6 did and S1/2 voted for wearing ties. Such consultation needs to go on every three or four years, so that every pupil gets a chance to take part at least once.
    One of the practical difficulties if there is no clear dress code is that an alternative dress code develops, based on the fashion choices of the most influential children – when my children were teenagers at Wallace High, it was McKenzie (or similar) tops and tracksuit bottoms or jeans or shell suits, and much angst and argument took place in houses around the catchment area as the values of the influential members of the peer group set the tone for the day.
    Where the consultation with the school community has been a genuine one and where a sensible compromise position has been developed taking account of winter weather, cost and appearance, a small number of refuseniks can undermine the policy. One pair of jeans quickly becomes five quickly becomes fifty, which is why some school leaders then work hard on the parents/pupils who are refuseniks.
    My experience as a headteacher was that was this was a difficult area to manage and keeping good communications with the community was a vital part of that, but it can be very difficult to build a consensus where a small number of articulate parents resist. You can either aim for a dress code (whether established by discussion and consensus or by diktat) or you have a free for all. There’s isn’t really much in the middle.
    Dahl’s foundational dilemma of plural democracy is autonomy vs control and there are few better examples in education than this – to what extent can the authority of the institution limit the freedom of the individual? Finding the right balance is a political issue within school communities – one of the many misunderstood aspects of school leadership and played out differently in every community. Scottish schools cannot legally send one child home never mind 150 – the ‘contract’ between school and parent balances the power of each differently. (DAHL, R., 1982. Dillemas of Pluralist Democracy–Autonomy vs. Control. New Haven and London: Yale University Press).

    1. Thanks as usual, Danny, for your thoughtful and detailed responses to my blog posts. Actually I have lot of sympathy with heads on this issue. Uniform seems to be engrained in the British psyche in a way that would be unthinkable in countries like Finland, whose education systems we seek to emulate in other respects. Where I get impatient is where uniform is claimed, on the basis of limited or no evidence, to b a cure for all sorts of social ills. Thus while uniform, for many heads, remains a difficult issue to manage in respect of community expectations (often based around stereotypes of schooling), for others it is a crusade – the key problem they will address in their new role. This is when we run the risk of the sorts of nonsense reported in the BBC article.
      I agree with you, in that I would like to see applicants for headships (and indeed existing heads) having the courage to say that they would like to get rid of uniforms – on the grounds that there is no basis for them in research. And I agree that this would require a substantial shift in cultural expectations – but isn’t that our job as educators?

      1. Replying to the comment: There wasn’t a single parent on any of the School Boards/Parent Councils I worked with in twenty years….. we have to start realizing that School Boards and Parent Councils are not representative of the parent body, in general. They’re likely to be from the more affluent parents in the school – single parents are not common nor are immigrants. While they’re technically voted in – it’s often more like self appointment.

  3. Tom Sherrington has talked about uniform being a ‘tent pole’ issue – an issue that a school takes seriously and in demonstrating a set of expectations reinforces wider norms that do contribute to school ethos and learning (apologies Tom if I got your point wrong!).

    For me personally there are two main issues with uniform. The first is that I don’t believe in pyhrric victories; I once worked at a school in Africa where the Head insisted that all students tuck their shirts in at all times. This was neither culturally correct or practical in a climate where temperatures in summer were regularly above 30C. I did inforce the policy (after protesting in private) and all I did was follow students around during every duty reminding them of the rule. It was counter-productive because it made no sense.

    The second issue I have always found is that if set something as simplistic as a uniform policy it has to be applied consistently. Students will accept most reasonable regulations as long as they are fairly implemented. So this means everybody has to see the issue as a school ‘norm’ – hence the tent pole concept. School community norms are not about conformity if they really are norms, they are about a shared concept of what a community values.

    1. Thanks for this response. There are some apt observations here that chime with my own experience of being a teacher – 5 secondary schools over 12 years in England and New Zealand. In each school, pedantry over uniform (and I agree that it has to be consistently enforced if set as a school policy) detracted from educational issues, often in a way that caused friction and led to poor staff-student relations. The response to this blog post (hundreds of tweets and around double my usual views of the post itself) illustrates the emotive power of this topic. Many foreign observers would be puzzled as to why uniform is such a pillar of schooling in the UK – a tent-pole issue as you say – when it is not considered to be relevant elsewhere. Put simply, why is uniform considered to be so essential for the smooth running of schools, for school ethos and even for raising attainment when in other countries with excellent schools, people don’t even consider it as an issue?

  4. In the first school I taught at there was no uniform. This was a small independent school in the Czech Republic whose stated aim was to introduce the values of an English Grammar School into a post-communist educational context where much of the state-led Marxist curriculum had become obsolete. Parents, staff and students all bought into the English Grammar school concept except for uniforms – these were seen universally as signifiers of state control (Soviets in ’68, Czech Communists just prior to ’89 and Nazi’s in 39). No amount of coaxing would persuade parents or pupils to adopt a uniform – it was a culturally bankrupt concept.

    It still seems crazy to me that Scottish school leaders, parents and some pupils are still infatuated with the idea of uniforms. Its not just the intense time and effort required to enforce (at the expense of more worthwhile policies) but the underlying values of conformity, unquestioning obediance and “tradition”. Uniform puts the school institution before the child – surely contrary to the rhetoric inherent in CfE.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s