School uniform is a child protection issue

There are days when two separate but related news stories appear alongside each other on the same day, and no-one makes the link between them. Yesterday was one such day.

All the morning media carried the story of the report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee that says teachers are condoning casual sexual harassment of girls in Britain’s schools by choosing to see it as ‘just banter’. By the evening, a story had hit some media about a petition on change.org launched by a mother in Kent whose daughter was ordered by her school to remove her plait extensions because they breached the school uniform policy on ‘normal hair’.

The link here is the encroachment of rules on school uniform into private space that would never be allowed in the adult workplace. And at the start of the new school year, it’s happening all over the country.

My daughter’s school is on a particularly zealous drive to enforce its uniform policy. One member of staff apparently bent over, stared at the midriff of a girl, and said ‘Your skirt is too short, show me the waistband!’ Imagine if a male boss did that to a female staff member in a factory!

The missing link between the two stories is that an unacceptable invasion of personal space is being tacitly condoned by an uncontested attitude towards school uniform. If the purpose of education is to teach our youngsters how to make their contribution to society once they become adults, then we need to make the school environment more relevant to the working and social environments they will inhabit.

Theories abound about how useful school uniform really is. As someone who taught for a year in Germany in the 1980s, I have never been convinced about it; this country is one of the few that has school uniform while many non-uniform countries have very good education systems, and the arguments in favour of school uniform seem easy to shoot through.

But OK, I’m happy to accept school uniform as a feature of the British education scene since at least 80% of British adults seem to approve of it. And I’m also happy for rules to be enforced – a rule that isn’t enforced merely serves to separate those with a conscience from those without one. But those rules have to be sensible and respectful, and too often they aren’t. This leads to abuse of both genders, but especially girls.

And any policeman will tell you that enforcement of rules and laws is a matter of consent. It’s much easier to enforce a rule if there’s been agreement among the community that it makes sense. Schools will find uniform enforcement a lot easier if they genuinely

consult with students and parents, rather than thinking it’s their job to issue diktats from on high that must be obeyed.

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019