A knotty problem

A group of scientists has calculated, after many months of complicated research, that there are 85 different ways to knot a tie. I could have saved them the bother - my pupils regularly display this number of variations in their tie-knotting technique.

Although many headteachers would agree with Oscar Wilde's assertion that "a well-tied tie is the first serious step in life", it's a step that many pupils are not yet prepared to take. Knots are, quite intentionally, tied too big, too small, too loose, too tight, too skinny or not really tied at all.

For many pupils, the tie has become a viable - and highly visible - instrument of rebellion against strict dress codes in particular and authoritarianism in general. The greater the deviance from an acceptable knot, the greater the display of defiance.

But perhaps these rebellious pupils have a pertinent point to make. One of my most eloquent students argues that for girls to wear ties is to submit to the idea that they are part of a man's world.

Another argues that ties are symbols of the rich and agrees with those open-necked Iranian politicians who denounce ties as symbols of Western decadence.

Other arguments against the school tie include the following: that they are anachronistic reminders of class divisions, that they are unwelcome symbols of power and that, oh yes, they are just a wee bit too phallic-looking for some of our more modest pupils.

As someone who is forever fighting with my own tie, and yet can still never quite achieve an acceptable knot, I have considerable sympathy with these teenage protestations.

But anger against the tie often seems to be more of a feminist issue - boys appear to be less troubled by the daily ritual of tying a piece of cloth around their necks.

Indeed, I remember the first-year boys at one school I worked in eagerly queuing up to get their ties tied properly by their new guidance teacher - who just happened to bear a passing resemblance to Keira Knightley.

Some schools have cracked down on any sign of neckwear dissidence by rewriting dress codes to provide incredibly precise rules about the specifications of tie-knots.

"On no account," one regulation states, "should your knot be more than 2cm bigger than a 50 pence coin".

Another school has issued a handy card to all students, with sketches showing acceptable and unacceptable styles.

A possible solution now exists in the form of a "zip-up tie" which, by means of a small, concealed zipper mechanism, results in the knot always appearing in the same, unquestionably acceptable, way.

Or perhaps, in this age of creativity, we should embrace nonconformity and accept all 85 variations in the way a tie can be knotted?

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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