Dress codes are such an enigma

30th May 2008 at 01:00
The wisdom of Henry Walpole
The wisdom of Henry Walpole

This week the Tories have finally made a decisive policy announcement - to get tough on scruffy teachers. I know it's hardly a revolution, but at least it gave the broadsheet columnists a chance to air their "jackets with elbow patches" jokes one more time.

My views on workwear have changed over the years. As a student teacher, I do remember trying to make a real effort for my first interview. I found a second-hand suit that nearly fitted, had a haircut, and even polished my shoes.

Unfortunately, I arrived at the school on the hottest day of the year and found that the headteacher had decided to dress in a T-shirt and a pair of distractingly short shorts. It's hard to answer questions about your philosophy of education when you are mesmerised by a shrivelled kiwi fruit-shaped object trying to escape from the leg of a sweaty old polyester garment.

Despite this, I managed to get a job at the school and soon went with the adopted staff policy of "casual but not worn more than three nights in a row to the pub". The only exception was the elderly school nurse, who dressed for the most part like the Queen Mother, but finished off her ensemble with a pair of flashing-light trainers. She also used to make a trifle for staff functions which was so alcoholic that it could exfoliate your face at 20 paces. I may have lurked too long in the vicinity of one of these puddings, but on several occasions I swear I saw her wearing a tiara to work.

Things have changed. When I was younger, the scuffed Converse trainers I wore for PE lessons were sometimes deemed "well cool" by some pupils. Now such shoes would draw scorn. ("What are you wearing, Sir? Where's the MP3 player? I bet they haven't even got sat-nav.")

Nowadays, as I approach middle age, the suit has become everyday attire, but I am careful which class I wear my tie in. Too many have been ruined by paint, and there is always a danger in the nursery that a particularly feral child will use it as a jungle vine. Like most male teachers, I have recurrent nightmares about bizarre laminator accidents.

Female primary teachers have it much easier. For them, "smart" means simply "no jeans". Pretty much anything goes. They can even get away with showing tattoos, although I have to admit that women's drunken stupidity is more likely to lead to a small butterfly on the shoulder than a male "I CFC aggro" monstrosity.

Of course, a relaxed approach to dress can go too far. I know of a drunken staff member at a school event who insisted on showing the chair of governors her pierced navel. Unfortunately, he was a local vicar and she was wearing a long summer dress, so he was a bit taken aback when she flung her clothes over her head. It was a "get to know the staff" occasion, but I suspect he didn't really want to get to know which styles of underwear the staff favoured.

More from Henry in a fortnight.

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