Uniforms 'removed the teenage angst about designer labels'

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The Independent Online

When Richard Ewen arrived as headmaster at Islington Arts and Media School in 2000, he faced several problems.

Staff and student morale was low and attendance among its 900 pupils was at 78 per cent. Behaviour was lax and many students showed little respect for peers, staff and themselves. They wore trainers, T-shirts, jeans and tracksuits, and fierce competition among designer labels reigned. No decision had been made to scrap the uniform code, but it had not been enforced for so long it no longer existed.

Mr Ewen reintroduced school uniform in 2000, and four years later many of the school's problems appear to be over. Mr Ewen said: "I made it clear right from the start: I'm the new head teacher, and we will be wearing a school uniform."

Jeans and T-shirts have been replaced by white, collared shirts, black trousers, black jumpers bearing the school badge, and black shoes or trainers. It is a good uniform, Mr Ewen explained, because it is "simple, hard-wearing and reasonably cheap. Certainly in an inner-city school, you can't have expensive tartan trousers".

He is clear about the benefits: "First of all, it's about making it clear to the children that school is different from leisure time. You have your designer clothes for outside school, but here we expect something different. It engenders a work-like ethos, a symbol enforcing a clear distinction between leisure and work time.

"Second, it's about engendering a sense of pride and collectivity, helping the children to identify with the school and see it as something successful in their lives. This is a long process; it takes years to build that kind of institutional esteem, but we're seeing it now."

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Mr Ewen said: "Parents support it. They know where they stand now, and the uniform is durable and cheap. The staff are pleased with having a strong work ethos that allows them to do their job.

"The pupils still refine the uniform code, but support it. They now have pride in the school and it's a good place to learn, and it's removed the teenage angst about competition between designer labels.

"We're clear on what our requirement is, and we enforce it strictly. It was a bit of a culture shock for everyone first, but now it's no big deal."

Mr Ewen was keen to stress that reintroducing uniforms would achieve little on its own, adding: "By itself, it's nothing, but taken as part of a raft of changes to engineer an achievement culture in a school it can work."

The success at the school - attendance has risen to 93 per cent, it was recently praised in its Ofsted report and has been awarded specialist status - is due to a crackdown on punctuality, attendance and behaviour standards.

"We had to get kids out of bed in the morning to come in, that's the bottom line," said Mr Ewen. "Once they're here we can work on the behaviour, and the uniform has been a big factor in bit-by-bit progress.

"It is amazing the turnaround there has been. The children want to come to school and the teachers want to work here. That's the first step to achievement."