School Uniform Policies - How to Avoid a Dispute

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18 June, 2021

Stephen McArdle
Partner, Head of Department

Disputes over school uniform policies and the enforcement of them are common, controversial and usually gain unwanted publicity.

It is therefore important for a school to know what legal considerations it must take into account when formulating their uniform policies and also how best to resolve a dispute concerning a pupil's school uniform, should one arise

Guidance from the Department of Education

The Department of Education strongly encourages schools to have a uniform and a uniform policy. Pupils and their parents will usually be made aware of the uniform policy and the consequences of not complying with policy at the start of the school year or prior to them joining the school.

The guidance provides that a pupil can be disciplined in accordance with the school's behaviour policy for breaching the uniform policy and can, under instruction of the headteacher, be sent home for not wearing the correct uniform. However, consideration must be given to the safeguarding of the pupil prior to them being sent home.

Costs of Uniform

A new law, which was passed on 29 April 2021 and is due to come into force shortly, will require schools to follow Government statutory guidance on school uniform costs. The guidance will require schools to:-

  • Make sure contracts with uniform suppliers are competitive and transparent in order to keep costs down.
  • Consider the quality and longevity of garments, alongside their cost.
  • Consider high street alternatives instead of branded-items, which can be costly.
  • Encourage the use of second-hand uniform.
  • Ensure parents have access to clear information about uniform policies.

The new guidance intends to achieve reasonable uniform quality and costs for pupils of all backgrounds.

The Equality Act

Schools must be aware of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, when formulating their uniform policies, to ensure that their policy provides for reasonable adjustments where appropriate. Failure to do so could in result in discrimination.

In a widely publicized rift concerning the introduction of a new uniform policy at London's Pimlico Academy (amongst other changes), pupils complained vociferously about changes to the uniform and appearance policy which affected some Afro hairstyles, facial hair and colourful headwear; changes which they claimed were 'racist' and 'discriminative'. The backlash resulted in hundreds of pupils protesting, threats of staff resignations, the reversal of some aspects of the new policy and led to the resignation of the headteacher who implemented it. The episode clearly had a damaging impact on the reputation of the school, staff and pupil morale and trust.

Similarly, a 12-year-old Muslim pupil at Uxbridge High School was repeatedly sent home from school for allegedly breaching the school's uniform policy. The school threatened legal action after allegations that the pupil breached the new uniform policy by wearing an ankle length skirt instead of the shorter knee-length skirt or trousers. A dispute arose between the school and the pupil's parents who claimed that the uniform was discriminatory and against the family's religious beliefs the pupil also reportedly felt bullied as a result of the incidents. The school's threat of legal action which was subsequently withdrawn and her preferred skirt length accommodated by the school. The matter had gained widespread attention and comment in the media.

How best to avoid a Dispute

The guidance published by the Department of Education sets out the best practice to which all schools should have regard to, to avoid a dispute in relation to its school uniform policy. Some noteworthy points include:-

  • Endeavour to implement a policy of clear communication and trust with pupils and parents, especially when new policies are being implemented.
  • Consider the timeframe for introducing a new uniform policy or amending an existing one - rather than a hard cut-off date with full-implementation, consider a phased-in approach for new starters in reception or year 7 for example.
  • Take into account the views of parents and pupils and consider the impact of the policy on each group represented in the school.
  • Ensure the policy is not overly rigid, and that any reasonable requests to vary the policy in order to accommodate a pupil's religious beliefs are carefully considered.
  • Consider carefully the risk of a challenge to the policy and consider appropriate insurance cover.
  • Ensure that the unform complies with the Government's new statutory guidance on school uniform costs.
  • Review the policy at appropriate intervals (at least once every five years as a minimum) to ensure it is still fit for purpose.
  • Comply with the Equality Act.

A dispute about a school uniform should initially be attempted to be resolved locally and in accordance with the school's complaints procedure.

If the dispute cannot be resolved internally, a complaint can be made in writing to the chair of governors.

During this time, you may wish to obtain legal advice.

For more information contact Stephen McArdle in our Education department via email or phone on 0333 207 1142. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

Learn more about our Education department here

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