A ‘Pretty Poor Indictment’ of a Headteacher?

A letter from the headteacher sent to parents of students at St Michael’s Academy, and posted on their website, has been doing the rounds online this week. This is the section of the letter that has been causing a stir:

‘A very big thank you to all of you who send your children in to school looking clean and tidy and ready for their school week. These are very important life habits to get into which will serve them well in adult life. Unfortunately I have noticed an increasing number of children who are coming to school in a pretty shocking state. They are dirty, unkempt and not in appropriate school uniform, if in any uniform at all. Today, being that it is a Monday, quite a few have returned to school in dirty clothes and obviously haven’t had a shower in readiness for Monday morning.
There are also an increasing number who are not making any attempt to wear black school shoes, in line with school policy. There are also a lot of children who are getting themselves up in the morning and in to school as their parents are still in bed. In a country where there is plentiful running water and washing machines, and shops like Tesco offering entire school uniforms for £10, it is a pretty poor indictment of the parenting skills of some of our families.
I totally appreciate that life is hard for some of you but please make sure that your children are clean and ready for school and that includes the correct clothes. Starting next week I intend phoning home to contact parents of children not in uniform including black shoes, and you will be asked to take them home.’

 
 
Well, yes, I agree that this is ‘pretty shocking’. No, not the uniform standards set by the parents and students, but the standards set by this headteacher, as a professional and representative of the education system.

There would appear to be two main possibilities in respect of the allegedly unacceptable appearance of these students.

The first is that there are no substantial difficulties facing these families that prevent their children from being well dressed, clean and prepared. In that case, one would probably have to question exactly how poor the standards being seen really are. It seems fairly unlikely that ‘shocking state’, ‘dirty’ and ‘unkempt’ would be anything other than over dramatic. Less a case of serious issues of hygiene and neglect, more a fuss about superficial matters – or a petty reaction to non-compliance – that really does not justify this reaction.

The second possibility, of course, is that there are students at the school facing significant challenges, whose home circumstances really do lead them to arrive at school with hygiene issues and clothing deemed unsuitable. Now, this may well be a situation that cannot, and should not, simply be ignored. It is likely to indicate a need for support for the students and their families. However, this letter does not offer support. It offers judgement, condescension and humiliation. There is no real compassion (I do not count the shallow and dismissive pretence at the start of the final paragraph as any form of genuine concern) for problems at home, no practical assistance or help for struggling families and students. There is nothing but an (extremely rude) admonishment to sort out the problem.

If standards of dress and hygiene are really below an acceptable healthy living level, one would have to assume that, at least in most circumstances, neither the students nor their parents want it to be that way. Presumably, if they could change it, they would. And if they can’t change it, a nasty, sanctimonious letter, lacking in empathy, is not going to suddenly solve the problem, is it?

What exactly are this headteacher’s priorities as an educator? Uniform and appearance standards apparently justify a scathing letter, but I do not imagine that she has sent letters out criticising parents for not having enough books at home, or not being interested enough in current affairs to talk to their children about news and politics. I am not suggesting for a second that she should do so, but these factors would have much more relevance to children’s behaviour and performance in school than whether they are wearing black shoes. If students in her school have such difficulties at home that they are unable to come to school clean and well dressed, perhaps she should appreciate what is important, which is surely that they are coming to school. In fact, even if her students and/or the parents are simply disinterested in what she considers to be appropriate dress standards for school, she should still appreciate that, if she is seeing them in their ‘shocking state’, they are at school. If students are going to be disinterested in something, better their uniform than their attendance, no? Are appearance standards really worth the risk of making students and parents feel alienated and attacked by the school, particularly those already facing struggles in their lives?

There is someone here who should feel ashamed. The educational professional who believes that it is acceptable to insult, belittle and humiliate students and parents. Who places so much emphasis on appearance and compliance, that she apparently did not think better of sending out a disproportionately rude letter, lacking in a proper sense of perspective. A woman who cares more about appearances than the education or the welfare of her students, or who at least has so little awareness that she is unable to see when she is giving that impression.

 
To paraphrase the lady herself: I appreciate that life is hard for many in the teaching profession at the moment, but this is pretty poor indictment of the skills of some of our educators. (Oh, and basic human compassion, politeness and a sense of perspective ‘are very important life habits to get into which will serve [you] well in adult life’, Madam Headteacher.)

15 comments

  1. Well said! If my child attended that school, I’m pretty sure I would be sending them in jeans, and trainers because that letter would have gotten my back up.
    If children are really turning up to school with very poor hygiene, it does need to be addressed because they will be targets for bullies, but sending this letter out is an invitation for that – everyone will know who they are talking about. There’s a way to deal with this and that letter is not it! #KCACOLS
    Debbie

  2. I totally agree with you. Surely the priority should be that these kids and their parents are getting help and support, rather than being ridiculed by everyone including the headmaster because they’re “bringing standards down” or something awful like that!

    Many children are young carers and do have to get themselves ready in the mornings (as well as getting their mum or dad ready, sometimes) and there are hundreds of other reasons why kids could be turning up to school like this. The school’s job is to be supportive and compassionate, not send home snotty letters suggesting that the school is ashamed of them.

    #KCACOLS

  3. Well goodness, that’s quite a letter home isn’t it?!
    I have visions of street urchins…waifs and strays…showing up to this school, which I hardly imagine is actually the case.
    Completely agree that if there actually are families who are struggling, then shaming them in this way is not really going to help them out.
    #KCACOLS

  4. Oh goodness this has had so much coverage, there is more than one side to everything and with 6 kids I know mine have turned up at school before now with a jumper inside out, an odd pair of shoes on or a tie missing but quite frankly getting 6 of them out and to school on time is an achievement in itself! #KCACOLS

  5. Ohhh this is interesting. I agree with *almost* all you say – and I certainly think the letter was inappropriate. But, as a teacher, I have seen students come to school in some shocking states. And, knowing their parents and situationa, I do disagree slightly that the poor state must be exaggerated OR the parents are in dire straits.

    I have bought kids breakfast because they have come to school not having eaten since the previous lunchtime. And I know that their parents haven’t been home but have been out drinking – or worse – and could have fed them eadily. And this is by no means an isolated case.

    Having said that, the letter wouldn’t matter to those parents. It will only alienate the ones trying their best, as you say. And it was at best poorly toned and completely misguided.

    But I do sympathise *just a tiny bit* with wanting to do something, to call out those parents you *know* should be doing better for their children. At the end of the day though you can’t change those parents directly. You just have to do the best you can for those kids.

    Hope that essay makes sense! #KCACOLS!

  6. There is never any excuse for public shaming! In my eyes this is bullying tactics, why not get the stocks out too! I could never work for a head like this. She is demonstrating a lack of understanding of and empathy for her pupils and their families in essence she is not on their side so this relationship will never work. She is probably one of these new super heads who will come in, create a load of sh** then disappear from sight for the teachers to sort out.

  7. Oh, I agree that it is shaming and not acceptable. And unlikely to work at all.

    I just think there are definitely parents who put their children at the bottom of a list of very dubious priorities. And that makes me very sad.

    I still think it was a very unpleasant way to try to address any issue.

  8. Wow, I’m so suprised by this letter! I agree with all of the points you make here. Obviously there is an underlying cause or causes to why a child would come into school unkempt. Or, this teacher has crazy high standards. We’ve had yogurt spilled on the uniform monday morning heading out the door. I wipe it off & they go – I wonder if that’d count? I think she would have been better to contact the individual families with any concerns, in a kind & supportive way. And, in a private way! #AnythingGoes x

  9. Carol Hedges says:

    OK, like one of the previous commentators, I’m going to *do* the teacher bit. I think the general tone of the letter was wrong. I do think that the parents whose children are coming to school in a poor state of dress etc should be dealt with though. This can be done by an invitation to visit the school…with welfare & possible social services in attendance (some prior research having been done to establish what is happening at home) The important thing, actually, is the welfare and well being of the child. Dirty,smelly, hungry kids will not thrive, and may well be ostracized by their peers. THEY need the help. And before we all jump to conclusions about *hard up* parents, there is a student at the secondary school I work at who’d fit the bill of this letter: dirty, unkempt, shoes down at heel, hair unwashed, smelly. This student’s parents live in one of the poshest houses here. The child is *brought up* by the butler and is on social services register. Sometimes it’s the parents who need a kick up the backside and a reminder they brought the child, a wonderful little being, into the world…..

  10. sarah says:

    Gosh that letters shocking 🙁 … now watch all kids try and play guess who the teacher is on about ?

    Surely if there is an issue and that’s a huge if then he could of easily spoke to the parents individually in private about it and not so publicly.
    I would of reacted same as you to be honest when any parent would

    Shocking just yeah *shakes head*

  11. If the teacher sees a continuing issue with the same children, surely she should be contacting individual parents to find out what challenges the children/parents are facing and then offer appropriate support, not a nasty blanket letter. #MMWBH

  12. Well said. I haven’t seen that letter before but it’s terrible in my eyes. Surely she should be talking to the parents involved rather than highlighting it to the whole school. I think some people in high positions, not just teachers, are thinking they are better than the rest. Thanks for linking up to #justanotherlinky xx

  13. Wow, I can’t believe someone would send a letter as such without doing some investigation of circumstances first. I live in the US and was shocked when I found out 1 of 5 children are homeless, starving and in most cases the only meal they get is at school. It’s very sad that this woman seems to think that this may not exist under her own very nose. Thanks for linking with #momsterslink 💌Trista

  14. Oh wow what a letter! I agree with you. I think the school should have a conversation with the parents of the children involved and try to find what the problem is instead to highlight the problem to the whole school. And I agree Fiona’s comment that is an achievement to get your kids at school on time. Thanks so much for sharing this at #KCACOLS. I would love to see you again on Sunday! 🙂 x

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