Last year I visited Robert Clack Secondary school in Dagenham, East London. A formerly failing school, Robert Clack has in the last two decades been garlanded with praise, awards and Outstanding Ofsted judgements. The Good Schools Guide calls it “an exceptional comprehensive in one of the most deprived areas of the country”.
However, on his first day in office back in 1997, new headmaster Sir Paul Grant sent over 300 students home for uniform infringments. Three hundred! They needed to understand, explained Sir Paul, (who incidentally is a Liverpudlian built like a prop forward), who was in charge. Once they had grasped this essential point, everyone could move on, and they have; Robert Clack students have since gone on to study in Oxford, Cambridge and Stanford universities.
All of which makes the sending home of fifty or so children this week from Hartsdown Academy in Margate look like a fuss over nothing. Again, the issue was uniform. From frilly socks, buckled shoes, and the wrong trousers, to turning up with no blazer; the Margate infringements were manifold and the punishment for the offenders unflinching.
Parents moaned, children sloped home weeping, but headteacher Matthew Tate, also a man marking his first day in office, was unrepentant. “This is a school which has been underperforming and we are determined to do our very best by the children of Thanet,” he said.
Tate has clearly been taking a leaf out of Sir Paul’s book, and good for him. Headteachers have to lay down the law and show that they mean it, and insisting on correct school uniform is the most obvious way to show authority. School is not a form of extended childcare arrangement or a group exercise in sitting around. It is preparation for the rest of your life, and one of the key stipulations is being able to follow simple rules. If you are unable to follow guidance about what shoes you are expected to wear, or that you are required to wear a blazer, then you might well have some problems later on down the line. Personal expression? I don’t think so. The Margate Fifty didn’t seem as much as a group trying to rage against the machine, as a bunch of kids taking a simple, frilly route to the institution of “Can’t Be Arsed. Sir.”
As far as Matthew Tate is concerned, a perfectly knotted tie is the route to good education, and to quote him, “part of a ‘no excuses’ culture where excellence is the norm”. I’m with Tate. It’s not clear why a correctly dressed class studies better, but an effective teacher has to operate in a co-operative environment, and regulatory uniform is very often the first base. The key is in the word. Uniform. There has to be a level playing field, at least in blazers.
It also looked as if it was about Margate parents not quite grasping what sort of place their children were attending on Monday. “I understand there are rules about uniform,” said one mother, Sian Williams, “but to be so strict and allow children to feel that way on their first day of school must have been petrifying for them.” Why, Ms Williams? Why is being given a list of proscribed clothes, and then being expected to wear them, so alarming? It’s just what happens across the country every September, Ms Williams. “Good morning and welcome to Year Seven. We have stipulated that you ought to wear a blazer. You aren’t in a blazer. Go home and put one on. These are the school regulations”. Why is that petrifying? And if you aren’t able to do it on the first day, then when should you do it? The second Wednesday after half term?
As a parent whose child has also just started in Year Seven, I know about uniform regulations, and I also know that most twelve-year-olds are eager to conform to them, which makes this story look as if it is more about parents inhabiting the world of “Can’t Be Bothered” than a fundamental youth rebellion in Margate. As also someone who spent much of her teenage years indulging in the multifaceted game of misbehaving at school, I can assure you that comes later. Much later. And it is pointless if you don’t already have a fabulously stern force of authority like Mr Tate in situ, a person who is used to laying down the law in no uncertain terms.
How can you be a rebel if your headteacher doesn’t care about frilly socks in the first place? It’s just no fun.
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