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Engage the pupils, but keep your tie straight

Why are we British so obsessed with appearances? You don't have to wear a suit to inspire.

You can almost hear the sound of barrels being scraped whenever politicians start talking about what teachers wear to work. Suggestions that the Education Bill should include an amendment requiring governors to lay down a dress code for their staff may be short-lived, but pre-election fever could make it an issue which will linger and, at the very least, produce some uncomfortable moments at annual parents' meetings.

Some parent is bound to ask: "Why is Mr X allowed to wear what he likes while my Jason has to be in school uniform?" And then will follow a heated discussion about what Mr X should wear, which will have the single virtue of being different from the previous year's equally heated discussions about what Jason should wear. The participants will ignore the obvious fact that Mr X is an adult who has learned to dress himself, whereas all those parents who think children should wear uniform clearly believe Jason hasn't learned the same lesson.

The return to uniform for pupils is one of the more marked outcomes of the educational market and our obsession with appearances. Schools use it as a selling factor: will brochures now proudly announce that all the male staff wear suits and the women regulation knee-length skirts? Will we now have in-service courses on colour co-ordinating or "how to mix-and-match in a professional way". Will schools be eligible for Grant for Education Support and Training (GEST) funding, one wonders?

The real point is that debate about what teachers wear is a distraction from serious issues. But worse, it's demoralising. Another stick to beat us with is bound to be the thought of all those teachers with so much on their minds that they grab the first thing in the wardrobe each day knowing that, given their innate conservatism, no reasonable person could be offended by anything they wear.

Peacocks we may not be, in the main, but neither are most teachers the scruffs dragged through a hedge backwards that the headlines denounce. And the idea that "if they want to be professionals, they need to dress like professionals" is both an insult to teachers and a misrepresentation of other professions - have you looked at what doctors, architects, lawyers and computer analysts are wearing these days?

And what about practicality? Those who argue that teachers should dress to impress need to appreciate that many teachers spend a lot of time on the floor or engaged in other activities injurious to silk and cashmere? Or is this another occasion when the word "teacher" really means "secondary specialist" in crumple-free subjects such as maths or English?

Teachers are individuals. Their creativity is what makes them good. Their variety makes them memorable. Cloned into the safest common denominator, they become uninspiring. To expect them to breathe life into young people but only to do it in a well- pressed suit is to encourage the kind of trivialisation that afflicts too much of modern life.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not arguing that anything goes - I once admonished two colleagues for wearing open-necked shirts and shorts which I thought inappropriate even in a heatwave. (Next day, they arrived in dark suits and waistcoats, equallyinappropriate ).

But I am arguing that our national obsession with appearance shouldn't be treated as the stuff of serious debate and certainly does not require schools to receive guidance from anyone - especially from politicians who, however well they think they dress, often have other habits much more worthy of censure.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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