We are all aware of the results attained by Finland in the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) over recent years. In 2009, Finland was placed almost at the top of the table after having gained number one overall position in the previous tests. What interests me is that the reputation Finland holds for academic excellence reflects a system which is surprisingly relaxed in approach. Indeed, Finnish children call their teachers by their first name and they do not adhere to a school uniform policy.
The latter is interesting; particularly since we are hearing more in the UK news of schoolchildren being sent home because they are not obeying uniform rules. Indeed, one Bradford Academy received huge media attention recently because the headteacher sent home 152 pupils at the start of a new school term for not meeting the set dress code. Despite the supposed ‘fury’ of some of the parents, the headteacher commented their uniform policy reflected their aim to prepare students for adult life and also formed part of their wider policy on behaviour.
So, there does seem to be a link – certainly in the UK – between perceived student expectations and standards and a school uniform policy. So why does a country like Finland, which does not enforce uniform rules, do so well academically? Well, perhaps too much focus on the more relaxed approach of Finnish schools is a red herring in the debate. After all, there are sufficient differences between Finnish and UK society to provide alternative reasons as to why Finnish schoolchildren appear to be performing at a higher level, generally, than those in our own schools.
For instance, teaching is one of the most revered professions in Finland, there is said to be a greater ‘reading culture’ as well as less poverty; all explanations for higher general standards. Furthermore, other school systems which – like Finland – do not enforce a uniform do not share the same academic success. Indeed, American schools, which perform around average in the PISA ratings, do not – generally – adopt a uniform policy. And, when they do, they justify their uniform policy on the basis of poverty arguments rather than because wearing a uniform may equate with increased standards.
So, do school uniforms have a place in 21st-century schools? I would say, categorically, ‘yes’. There may not be a direct correlation between uniforms and academic success but the wearing of a school uniform – for the girls in my school – reflects their pride in their identity. At a recent student council meeting, representatives from each year group were unanimous in their agreement that the school uniform was a vital part of their core identity. Yes, we continue to remind girls about appropriate skirt and tie lengths! However, the girls wouldn’t get rid of their uniform and they don’t see the uniform necessarily as an equaliser – an argument so often used to justify why uniforms should be sustained in a world of fashion and label concerns. Rather, the girls feel that the uniform represents who they are and they wear it – as a consequence – with pride. Similarly, my sixth-form students wear business suits but they, too, understand that we – just like the Head of the Bradford Academy – are preparing them for their future lives and careers. And for me, yes, a smart appearance reflects the expectations I have of my students. Some may argue that enforcing a uniform policy is tiring, thankless and – potentially for some – overly zealous. Doing so may inhibit personal expression and may not result in higher results at GCSE. However, for me – my students wearing their uniform with pride – symbolises their understanding of the values, principles and expectations that underpin the school. In their words, wearing their uniform is part of what makes them Alderley girls.
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