12 Oct 2017

Balancing order and sensitivity: where to make exceptions with school uniform

Last week students debated whether they should be exempt from uniform rules if the policies conflicted with their beliefs. The debate was inspired by a recent news story about a Rastafarian boy being sent home for having dreadlocks. The issue proved to be a pertinent one, with another news story appearing in the week about an 8-year-old boy being sent home for wearing a religious bangle.

My teaching tenure has left me with a conundrum when it comes to making exceptions to the school uniform policy. I still remember the events of Tuesday 6th September 2011, the first day of my teaching career. Hordes of students descended on the school gates, fresh from a summer break and reluctant to do anything that constituted learning. The principal and deputy head stood at the entrance and vetted every single student following the implementation of a new uniform policy.

In a morning full of difficult confrontations, around 100 students were sent home on their first day of school. This was due to the new uniform policy being extremely strict. It was designed to tackle the significantly challenging pupil behaviour faced by the school in the previous academic year.

To the principal’s chagrin, the mass rejection of so many students made headlines in the local newspapers and even featured in a national paper. (Editors could not resist sticking the downtrodden expression of a naive year 7 on the frontpage). While common culprits with baggy trousers, absent ties and short skirts (not all one outfit) were deservedly sent home, there were unlucky new starters caught up in the mix. Many had bought the wrong type of shoes or trousers simply by mistake. I can only imagine how distressing being turned away on day 1 of secondary school must be.

However! The approach was a welcome turnaround from unsuccessful and lazy attempts to change bad behaviour in previous years at the school. The uniform policy proved to be a vital tool in cracking down on disrespect in the school.

Were I the Principal on said Tuesday morning and a student appeared who had worn what looked like Jewellery or had a non-conforming hair style, I am sure I could have easily turned them away at the gates. I would have been guilty of being insensitive to religious beliefs held by a student. A principal at such a difficult school might have thought that giving exceptions for one set of religious beliefs would have been the start of hundreds of professions to faith, like an odd, mass teenage baptism. The next day they might be confronted with 100 Jedis who insisted on wearing cloaks.

In my view, teachers might well have difficulty in making exceptions for students’ beliefs. But this is much less a question of morals and more of practicality. I can empathise with members of staff who have to deal with difficult behaviour and rely on clear rules to keep the peace.

A solution? There can be a solution in a school where students’ beliefs are supported and yet order is maintained. I would think, the school uniform policy could be adapted to include a disclaimer whereby items/apparel of religious importance can be permitted in specific circumstances and without undermining the strict set of rules that have to be adhered to.

The specific circumstances would have to be clear, involving a discussion with parents and the student about their specific beliefs and agreeing a policy for the future. This agreement would have to be shared with staff, possibly with a list of students that have specific uniform exemptions. This might seem like overkill, however clarity is vital for schools that rely on strict rules and these are the schools that often end up in the spotlight with these types of issues.

While this solution has been carefully considered, there are flaws in it. Requesting parents to come to school specifically and having a list of students with exemptions might make those students feel single-out to some extent. It also might mean the student endures a brief period of being prevented from wearing an item or coming to school. There might be better solutions out there. With an understanding set of staff who have good control of their school, these situations can hopefully be dealt with immediately via a dollop of common sense.

The results of our vote were conclusive with 77.8% of secondary students voting that they should be able to refuse to comply with a school uniform if it conflicts with their beliefs.

At the same time, the fact that 22.2% of young people think you should submit to uniform rules even if it conflicts with your beliefs is perhaps just as interesting. In my time as a teacher, I never met a student who would defend our strict uniform rules. Yet here we have a notable proportion of young people who, when given the chance to undermine uniform, have decided to support it even if it suppresses the beliefs of others/themselves.

Here is a wonderful quote from one of our voters to finish:

‘Very interesting topic. In today’s society, if someone believes something, their opinion should be respected…. someone could have a religious belief which contradicts uniform policy, but this can surely be worked around rather than just bluntly refused. An intriguing question as there are many variables in this situation. I was very surprised by the current results.’ Anonymous voter, Sutton Coldfield Grammar School for Girls

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