School Gategate


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.