Dressed to impress impresss

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Elbow patches are out, power-dressing is in, for parents' evenings at least. Mike Fielding on what to wear at school. Visiting a French school earlier this year, I commented to the head on the very casual dress of some staff - particularly the men. Most wore jeans with open-necked shirts or T-shirts and some looked decidedly scruffy. "Ah," he said, with the usual Gallic shrug, "they are individuals. They wear what they like."

A few weeks later in an English school I noticed how formally the teachers dressed - all the men wearing jackets and ties, many in suits, and women in dresses or suits. "It's their own idea," the head told me. "They know we're in competition with other schools in the city and they think dressing smartly is part of our image."

"It seems to work, too," he added. "We're always over-subscribed."

The English obsession with dress and its indication of status can be a problem for new teachers. Fresh from four years of college where virtually anything goes and what you wear is meant to say something about who you are, the new teacher plunges into a world where dress may carry very different messages.

A feature of post-Reform Act competitiveness between schools has been the return of the school uniform for pupils. Unknown in virtually every other country in the Western world, school uniform in Britain was gradually fading during the Seventies and Eighties into unenforced "dress codes". Then the "improvement through competition" ethos took hold.

Along with shiny brochures, promotional videos and all-singing, all-dancing parents' evenings, schools discovered that uniform - particularly where it involved a white shirt and a tie - could give them the edge over the place down the road.

And teachers are not immune from this trend. Whether it's "setting an example to pupils" or "projecting an image of the school", what teachers wear will be a subject of discussion in most schools and direction in some.

The old "women should not wear trousers" rule may have disappeared from most staff handbooks but there may still be guidance about the kinds of trousers women (and their male colleagues) should wear.

Once, the leather-elbowed "sports" jacket was de rigueur for male secondary school teachers (and a few can still be spotted these days). It may have a slightly caricatured image but the virtue of this jacket was its practicality: the tweed absorbed chalk dust and the leather elbows protected against splinters and the constant rub on the desk while marking.

Finding its equivalent today is not so easy and different subjects have their own practical requirements. Drama teachers want to move freely; artists can get messy; science teachers risk acid and flame; and technologists usually put white coats over whatever they're wearing.

PE teachers have the easiest answer: they just wear a tracksuit or shell-suit all day - which is why they can be difficult to recognise when they turn up at parents' evening in a jacket or dress.

That's another trend: "interview" suits, smart two-pieces, even the occasional pearls will appear when parents are calling (usually, paradoxically, in their more casual garb). Children dragged along by parents can sometimes be flabbergasted to find "Sir" in the double-breasted jacket he has swapped for his habitual in-school jumper.

So, how does the new teacher find his or her way through this sartorial minefield. The first point is that if you have chosen your school wisely (taken a job where the ethos seems to fit what you believe a school should be) then there may be no problem. As a rule of thumb, for instance, the more overtly and philosophically child-centred the school, the more relaxed the staff and management are likely to be about dress. Where outcomes and results feature highly in the school's aims, there is likely to be more emphasis on appropriate clothing.

"Fitting in" matters to new teachers, so some observation of the dress norms among teachers will be important on preliminary visits or in the early days. "Start conservative" is probably good advice - you can always break out into the real you later when you have more confidence and are well established.

By then, you will have recognised that in any staffroom there will be a wide range of styles and you will probably have drifted towards the staff group which most nearly matches your own vision of education and appropriate school wear.

But remember, the view of - usually older - colleagues on your skirt being "too short" or your jacket "too loud" will almost certainly depend on how they rate you as a teacher. "Good" teachers will be forgiven almost anything; "bad" ones excused nothing. Grumbles about your clothes may be more a comment on the state of classes you send on than about your actual wardrobe.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, north

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