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Late on Tuesday night, I was contacted by a reader. “Can you,” they asked, “help?” They went on to link me to various reports of what has been happening at Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight.
This is the secondary school where the headmaster, Dr Rory Fox, introduced a crackdown on the school uniform policy this month and sent some children home because their skirts were too short, their trousers too tight, their shoes incorrect.
This has spawned a host of articles, mostly about the merits or otherwise of school uniforms. There is an impression of delinquent children being corralled by a no-nonsense headmaster. “Good for him” and “about time too” some have said: give children an inch on a school skirt and they will take a mile of liberties.
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But as I read further about what has been going on at Ryde Academy – with parents starting at least one online petition, and another writing an open letter to the Children’s Commissioner - it became clear that this is about more than school uniforms. It is about power and responsibility.
I know from personal experience that for parents to galvanise themselves into taking action against their own child’s head teacher, they must be very troubled. Most parents take a while to decide on their child’s school – especially a secondary one. Once you’ve made that decision you really don’t want to have to revisit it.
But let’s concentrate on the Ryde Academy’s school uniform policy for a moment. None of the parents of children at the school seem to object to a school uniform policy, per se. The Ryde website has a school uniform mission statement – with pictures showing smiley faces if things are acceptable, sad faces if they are not. The do’s and don’ts cover three A4 pages - more draconian than at any other school I’ve come across.
But uniform is clearly very important to Dr Fox. Three years ago he allegedly sent more than 100 pupils home on his first day as headmaster at Basildon Academy. It has been reported that he has also told off his current staff for wearing inappropriate dress.
Anyway, on 9 June he wrote to Ryde parents warning them that there would be a “focus” on uniforms on 17 June and that teachers would “send students home, or educate them apart, if their uniform was not right”.
When 17 June came around, he stood by his word, to put it mildly. According to various reports, as many as 250 pupils - in a school of 1,120 – were removed from their classes for uniform infringements, some as minor as a skirt being 1cm from the bottom of the knee-cap. Some were sent to home to change, but 200 were allegedly sent to the assembly hall for “isolation” and received no lessons all day.
In an open letter to Children’s Commissioner Dr Maggie Atkinson, posted on Motherfunk, a “worried father” wrote: “The children were sent to the school hall and made to face the wall in silence for the entire school day, with one ten-minute break in the morning and a reduced lunch break of a further ten minutes.”
Some reports talk of escorted loo breaks, of children being bought new school uniform from the official supplier, only to still be sent home or excluded. As the magnifying glass got ever keener, even stitching on socks was deemed a rebellion too far (socks must be totally plain).
One parent, Helen Smith, who claimed her 14-year-old daughter Jade was sent home twice that day – once for a too-short skirt and then, having changed, for too-tight trousers - told the Daily Telegraph: "It has been a nightmare… I can't believe their education is suffering because of this.”
As a result, some parents started to keep their children home, and risked fines. Others reported their children were incredibly worried and stressed about attending school.
How is this good leadership? What does this teach children? Other than that bullying is okay as long as it’s from an adult to a child. In the Ofsted Parent View of Ryde Academy, where parents can vote on various aspects of their child’s school, 84 per cent say they strongly disagree this school is well managed, while 54 per cent per cent strongly disagree that their children are happy there. Why is nobody listening?
In defence of his 17 June clampdown, Dr Fox told parents he was enforcing the uniform rules in the spirit of “fairness” and to prepare children for the “world of work”. He also said he wanted to help girls who were under peer pressure to wear their skirts shorter than they wanted.
Being a good head is about being firm, for sure, and fair, too. But it’s also about being kind. Kind is not a word that’s often applied when discussing education, but it is incredibly important. However, kindness comes from a strong personality; power corrupts the weak. Such environments aren’t much fun for the teachers, either.
I have some experience of renegade, megalomaniac heads. We had one at our school for a terrifying and destabilising 13 months.
All complaints, we were told, had to follow the complaints procedure – in other words they go to the very person they were about, the head. Despite writing to everyone we could think of in authority, we got caught fobbed off and passed around. “They’ll only listen if someone dies,” said one parent at the time. It wasn’t a joke.
This is where we discovered just how hard it is to get rid of a bad head when it doesn’t suit the powers-that-be, even though things were going very wrong. Had I not lived through this I wouldn’t have believed what can happen in a school and how little the very people who are supposed to care about a child’s welfare sometimes do.
Within two weeks of our old head being “moved on” (incredibly, to another school) and a new head being brought in, logic, order and harmony were once again restored. Yet we were only 48 hours away from taking our child out of school for her own safety.
Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act says you have a legal requirement to give your child a full-time education at school or otherwise. In other words, school is not compulsory. This is important to remember because if things get really uncomfortable, you can deregister your child from school and remove them immediately and have a bit of breathing space whilst you decide what to do next.
I came to the conclusion that while there are many people who work with children who love doing that job, it also attracts some very strange, power-hungry folk. And when you try to tell people that things are going wrong in a school, it can be really hard to get anyone to listen. If you have a good head, cherish them.