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.)