Education

School Gategate

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I tried to ignore it. You’d think being in Hawaii would be a enough of a distraction that I’d be able to take my eye off the news.It was the first week of the new school year, I told myself, how much was really going to happen? If I hadn’t already written a post about my views on Grammar schools this post would probably have been about Theresa May’s announcement that she plans to drag us all back to 70s  reverse the ban on grammars. Instead this post is about the other “scandal” to hit the headlines this week.

Matthew Tate, the new headteacher at Hartsdown Academy, made the news because on the first (and second, and third) day of term he and his staff sent home pupils for wearing incorrect uniform.

Generally I’m pro-school uniform on the condition that it is affordable, comfortable, durable and gender neutral. By that I don’t mean skirts or summer dresses. I mean that girls can wear trousers and boys can wear skirts – because it is 2016. The most common argument is that school uniform is a social leveller: when everyone is wearing the same it’s harder to tell who is rich and who is poor. Children don’t feel as though they have to “dress up” to come to school and families don’t feel the pressure to buy the latest trends (are there trends in children’s fashion? There must be. I spent my entire childhood in leggings and over-sized t-shirts so children’s fashion is a bit of a blind spot for me.)

The last school I worked at was Requires Improvement. The first thing the new Head Teacher did was write, and more importantly, enforce a new uniform policy. No more coming to school in glittery trainers or stripy leggings, no more hoodies or sweatbands. For a lot of children, the school uniform was as a physical representation of the school’s values and, when they put on their uniform, it served as a reminder of how they were expected to behave in school. For children who were allowed to hit or swear at home – putting on different clothes helped them leave that behaviour at the school gates. The number of times I’ve said: “When you wear that logo – you cannot use that language because you’re representing our school and we don’t call other people those things.” Call it voodoo nonsense all you like, it worked.

There are strong arguments against uniforms and I know lots of schools don’t have one and that’s fine. To be honest, I don’t really care whether a school has a uniform or not. I’ll never be one to fight for or against it. What matters to me is when a school has agreed what their policy is – they are allowed to enforce it. Anyone who has ever worked in a school will be able to tell you that there is nothing more pointless than a policy that is not enforced. It’s something Ofsted are very interested in at the moment: is the school doing what they say they’re doing in their policies?

When parents send their children to a school they immediately become part of a “Home/School Agreement.” This is a document outlining the responsibilities of the school and the parents. The school will commit to keeping children safe and provide learning experiences that will ensure they make progress and the parents commit to things like: completing homework, bringing children to school on time and ensuring their children are wearing the correct uniform.

My understanding is that the parents of Hartsdown Academy were written to at the beginning of the summer holidays outlining the new uniform policy, including the fact that children would be turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. It should therefore have come as no surprise to those parents that their children were turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. Apparently 20 of those children returned the same day wearing the correct uniform which begs the question – why didn’t they just wear it in the first place? Like most schools, Hartsdown Academy offer subsidised uniform for parents who can’t afford the full cost and they have a second-hand uniform shop. There is no reason for not being able to get hold of the correct uniform, particularly not on that first day.

Whether or not I agree with the actual policy is irrelevant – what I do agree with is a school’s right to enforce their policies without facing backlash from parents and the media. As a head teacher, if you bow to pressure to change your policies  you build a rod for your own back. It would send out the message that the head teacher doesn’t really know what they’re doing and you can basically ignore any new rules or policies.

As one has come to  expect, the response from the public has been completely hysterical. The head teacher has been called a tyrant and a bully by a parents but, I’ll be honest, I’ve seen head teachers being called that for reducing playtime by 5 minutes – yes really. What some supportive parents don’t realise is how many parents there are that will complain about ANY policy or change. Of course it’s not a majority. Most parents are amazing, they do the best they can for their children and work well with the school. However there is always a loud minority who cannot wait to get their complaint in. I’ve had complaints about: playtime being too long, playtime being too short, homework being changed, homework not being changed, PE kit being sent home too often for washing, PE kits not being sent home often enough, too many trips, not enough trips, coat pegs being swapped for lockers, ties being taken off the uniform list and, you’ve guessed it, ties being added to the uniform list.If a school changed its policy every time there was a complaint they would never get anything done.

I have huge sympathy for head teachers – it’s a bloody hard job and you face criticism every single day. Yes, there are some really crap head teachers out there but they aren’t the majority. Most are hard working, dedicated people who are having to act as a buffer between their staff and the ever increasing pressure being put on them by external forces. You cannot please everyone as head teacher and ultimately the final say is yours. Surrounding yourself with a smart and talented team who can advise and, when necessary, challenge you will help but ultimately you have to do what you believe to be right. And you have to defend your decisions almost every day: to children, parents, staff and, occasionally, the media.

I’ll end with a story from my husband Tim. In his first year of teaching his head teacher told him he’d received two complaints about him. One was that he was setting too much homework and the other that he wasn’t setting enough.

On the basis of those two complaints the head teacher concluded that Tim was setting exactly the right amount of homework.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “School Gategate

  1. This is excellent, and has definitely softened my attitude to the policies. I guess what still troubles me is how headteachers can be held accountable for bad policy, justified by reference to a misreading of research? I get that in the moment, everyone just needs to roll with it, but governors seem too often nodding dogs, especially with the more, um, forceful heads. How can bad ideas be weeded out? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! It is so difficult. If a head teacher is genuinely refusing to listen to the people around them there is very little to be done. If a policy is ineffective in time you would hope that would become evident and would force the head teacher to review. So many things are brought in because they are popular/fads and sometimes all you can do is let these things run their course – as frustrating as it is. Most head teachers I know tend to develop policies in collaboration with the staff before presenting them to the Governors. I suppose it’s true in all industries – if you get a truly terrible boss there is very little you can do. Sorry, I realise I have in no way answered your question – it’s a tricky one!

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  2. This is an excellent post, I agree with all of it – except the little aside about grammar schools at the beginning!

    I left primary school in 1970, and was in the first year in the town where I lived (the abolition of the 11+ varied according to area) who had to go to one of the old secondary modern schools for 2 years before going to the grammar school at 13, because the old sec mods were being phased into middle schools. This delay in getting me to the school I should have been at in the first place had a dreadful affect on my education but, more than that, on my behaviour; I was bored because the lessons didn’t stretch me, I mucked about, I met types of girl (sorry, but social class does exist) who I’d have never met at the grammar school, really rough types who threatened to beat other girls up just for being different. Young 11 and 12 year old skinheads who were talking about the sexual stuff they did with their boyfriends, and smoked. So I had to toughen up, too. I learned to rebel, answer back. By the time I got to the grammar school, I was one of the worst behaved in the class (most of the girls in my class came from a school in a nicer area; my mother was rather idealistic!). The die was cast. I was generally thought by my teachers to be more intelligent than my sister, who was 2 years older than me and did the 11+, got outstanding ‘A’ Levels and went to a good university. I was too busy skiving off and getting asked to leave art school.

    In the secondary modern school I went to, girls were less academically bent, so were taught typing, office practices and hairdressing, cookery, art, nannying, so they could get jobs suited to their skills. If they worked hard and were in the top tier, they could still take some ‘O’ levels and had the option of joining the 6th form at the grammar school and taking ‘A’ levels, many of whom did so successfully.

    This is just my experience; there will be many others that show the old system as a bad one. But it’s not black and white. And it’s better than dumbing down ‘A’ Levels so that every child in the country gets 4 x A*.

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  3. ps, sorry, just realised I should have read your post on grammar schools first, and posted this comment there! I reacted to the crossed out line – slapped wrist. I will go and read your other post now.

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