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Dress up, because you're worth it

Patricia denison Answers your leadership questions

Recently I visited a highly successful school, one which the head and leadership team had "turned around", driving up standards and improving the school's falling roll. Immediately, I couldn't help but notice how smart the staff were.

It created an impression of confident professionalism. Some of our own staff, in contrast, look scruffy. How do I set about changing the way the staff dress?

Your phrase "create an impression" provides the first answer: you associated the smart, business-like appearance of staff with professionalism and confidence. You formed an impression within minutes of entering the school: a statement was made, and you observed that everyone you met was dressed to make that same statement. I wonder whether you had any discussion with the head about this, whether there was an explicitly defined dress code in the school, or whether it had been "caught" as an unspoken norm.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that aspects of a school are somehow or another compartmentalised: that behaviour, for example, is separate from learning; that what happens in classrooms is separate from the playground and the dining room; that expectations of pupil conduct are different from that of adults. I believe that efforts to target one of these aspects without a dialogue about whole school culture are wasted.

Results may look good in the short term, but are rarely sustainable. Think about the notion of culture as meaning "the way things are round here".

What kind of statement are you making to pupils, staff, parents and the wider community; is there a gap between intention and reality? You might set out to present to the outside world an impression of care, quality and significance, but would a visitor to your school see, hear and feel what you think you have created? Remember, we can't not communicate (I make no excuse for the double negative). We communicate a strong message about our beliefs and values in every nook and cranny of the school and through every nuance of behaviour of the staff.

We talk a lot about "creating a culture" in our schools, and it's important to unpick this so that everyone has the same understanding of what it means. If you haven't done so, I would recommend starting here, with full participation: "What statement do we want to make about relationships, environment and ourselves?" In my experience you will get full agreement on the first two. People easily talk about mutual respect, a concern for the individual, the need to listen with good intent, and seeking to understand.

Similarly, once dialogue about the quality of the environment is stimulated and fostered, no one will put forward a view that the school should intentionally set out to present a dirty, cluttered, uncared-for place for learning.

When it comes to debate around ourselves however, people are less comfortable. The notion of valuing and investing in oneself is not often apparent in a number of British staffrooms. The stereotypical schoolteacher image is sadly alive, even in the 21st century. So, ask the question: "If we believe that people should be valued, that self-esteem and self-perception are crucial to success, how are we applying those beliefs to ourselves?"

There is no doubt that too many of our teachers don't have a sense of their own worth: their esteem has been knocked over the years by poor leadership and management, itself buffeted by a perceived external bullying culture.

They come to work in an environment which makes no effort to nurture them, often coming into dreary, run-down staffrooms where they pay for a cup of coffee in a stained mug. It is hardly surprising that these teachers pay little attention to their own appearance. They just don't think they're worth it.

Discussion around this issue might well throw up a number of perceptions which staff have about their working conditions which may require some action. Relatively inexpensive attention to the staffroom will make a clear statement to staff that you think they are, indeed, worth it.

Now, you need to be open and direct with your senior leadership so that they start modelling the dress code you want. At the same time, compliment teachers when they do turn up looking smart. This tells them that how they look is significant, and gradually you will notice a change. By the time you appoint new staff you will be able to make explicit at the interview your expectations about dress. I haven't read any research on the effects of staff appearance on standards, but it may be a hypothesis worth testing.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking in Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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