'If I wanted to wear a suit, I would have worked in a bank'

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Don't teachers have better things to do than worry about the head's take on their sartorial style - or lack of?

Being told you "dress like a teacher" has never been the pinnacle of praise. For many, it conjures up an image of Bill "Scruffy" McGuffy, the Grange Hill teacher Mrs McClusky was always trying to smarten up.

But an increasing number of schools are now demanding that staff revamp their image. Dress codes have become so strict in some places that teachers who defy them may even be sent home to change.

Adrian Swain didn't get that option. The maths and science teacher was fired from St Paul's Way Community School in Tower Hamlets in December for refusing to follow an unofficial dress code. Instead, he continued to turn up to work in trainers and tracksuit bottoms - just as he had for the past 17 years. He has since lost an appeal against the sacking (see box on page 24).

And last month the University and College Union (UCU) led a protest against Birmingham Metropolitan College after lecturers were told they would be sent home if they failed to comply with the new dress code: staff were told to wear a business suit or smart skirt and blouse, plus keep their hair "neat, tidy and well groomed". The union accused the college of acting like the "fashion police".

But if there is a change of government, dress codes could even enter the policy agenda. Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, has already announced that a Conservative government would back schools that introduce smart dress codes for staff, saying that it helps boost the "professional standing" of teachers.

But is it really so important to look smart in the classroom? Only if it improves attainment, insists Mr Swain. The rest is simply window dressing; at worst, masking more serious problems, such as poor leadership.

"What raises standards is good teaching and learning, not what staff wear," agrees Nick Varney, the UCU official for the West Midlands, which represents Birmingham Metropolitan College. Nothing agitates staff more than a dress code, he adds, especially one that is imposed without consultation.

"I have no problem with staff who choose to wear a suit, but if you force everyone to power-dress in order to create an environment of professionalism, it shows there are issues there."

College students, who don't wear uniforms, may enjoy the fact that their lecturers don't look like teachers, Mr Varney adds.

But most primary and secondary pupils do have a uniform. And if they are wearing a jacket and tie, shouldn't their teachers follow suit?

All eight of the academies run by the Ark education charity have imposed strict pupil uniforms. And, on a more informal basis, staff are expected to look smart, too. That means a suit, collar and tie for men and "the equivalent" for women. The new Walworth Academy in south London is the only Ark school to make its rules compulsory. Devon Hanson, the principal, has asked his staff not to wear denim or leather into work.

"It's mostly self-regulating," says Lesley Smith from Ark schools, who insists that the vast majority of academy staff agree with the dress code.

"We want pupils to take pride in their school and themselves and we expect teachers to model that in their appearance. The staff dress code is not as prescriptive as the rules for pupils, but we will take individuals to one side if they look dishevelled or untidy."

However, not all teachers are comfortable with being told what to wear. To them, it is just one more unwelcome intrusion into their professional judgment.

One primary school teacher insists she dresses appropriately for her job, which may include sitting on the floor, messing around with paint and joining in with football in the playground. "If I wanted to wear a suit, I would have worked in a bank," she says.

Another teacher, who does wear a suit in keeping with her school's policy, resented being "told off" for allowing the back of her shirt to become untucked under her jacket. "They treat us like children," she says.

But where should schools draw the line? Few would disagree that short skirts, revealing tops and stiletto heels are neither appropriate nor practical for working in a classroom.

"A couple of my teaching assistants either look like ladies of the night or as if they are in weekend denim mode. I feel for our very devout Muslim parents," says one anonymous primary school headteacher, who directs staff to the school's handbook, which outlines house rules regarding dress. "I don't want to create a staff of Stepford Wives or husbands but it helps to have something concrete written down which can back me up."

A lot of heads impose a dress code because they can't bring themselves to tackle people individually, believes Gerald Haigh, a former primary school headteacher. "The blanket dress code can become a big stick that's really directed at just one or two people," he says.

That is certainly the case for one headteacher. He asks staff to dress "professionally and appropriately" via the school handbook, after a female member of staff kept turning up to school in micro-skirts and fishnet stockings.

Mr Haigh remembers working for a head in the Seventies who instructed a male teacher to wear narrower ties, but he never felt the need to enforce a dress code. That's not to say it doesn't matter what teachers wear, he adds.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw female teachers wearing jeans," Mr Haigh says. But if you expect teachers to be suited and booted, who should foot the bill? Mr Haigh's daughter, who works in a hotel, receives a pound;50 clothing allowance. His other daughter, a primary school teacher, does not.

Mike Welsh, headteacher of Goddard Park Primary School in Swindon and vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers, takes a more relaxed approach to what his staff wear. Beyond a "no jeans" policy, which resulted from a discussion with staff and parents, he treats teachers as professionals who can decide for themselves what they wear.

"You don't have to be dogmatic about how staff dress," he says. "I wear a suit and tie but I don't expect my staff to do the same unless they want to."

In his 23 years as a headteacher, he has only had to talk to a couple of members of staff about what they are wearing, plus a few supply teachers. He explains the no jeans rule at interview stage, and rarely has to refer to it again.

A handful of surveys of private sector workers show that dressing smartly helps create a good impression at interview and even improves promotion prospects, but there is little or no conclusive research in education to suggest that smart teachers fare better.

Rosie Cairns, a teacher at Ridgeway School in Wroughton, near Swindon, was so convinced that what teachers wore mattered that she conducted her own small study at school. She asked certain male and female teachers to smarten up their wardrobe, hair and (for the women) their make-up.

"My research aimed to gauge just how important our appearance in the classroom might be," she says. "I wanted to establish if it has an impact on teaching and learning."

The newly made-up volunteers had an air of self-assurance, she says, and the pupils said they liked the new look and thought it commanded more respect. "Wearing clothes that the pupils themselves might wear, or wearing scruffy or old fashioned garments were clearly a no-no according to pupils," adds Ms Cairns.

Non-verbal communication can determine how receptive pupils are to teachers, Ms Cairns says. Before teachers even open their mouths, judgements will have been made. "Like it or not, people are judged by the way they dress. I believe that dressing professionally sets the tone and can give staff confidence."

Mr Varney of the UCU is critical of this kind of approach. To him, asking staff to dress smartly is to misunderstand the relationship between the teacher and the learner. "Education is not the same as a business, with customers and retailers," he says. "You don't want to look as if you are flogging a second hand car. I'm extremely doubtful that looking the part, which doesn't necessarily mean acting the part, will raise standards."

It is also a question of what is practical. A tie may look good, but not if it ends up in a pot of glue. One headteacher realised this to his peril when a Year 6 pupil grabbed his tie and wouldn't let go. It took two other teachers to finally get the boy to loosen his grip. From then on, ties were banned.

But Ms Smith remains adamant: "How you dress at work is not about comfort, it's about looking smart. We want to raise the aspirations of our pupils, and being well turned out is part of that."

So next time you are told you dress like a teacher, take pride - it may be a compliment

When dress does not impress

  • Adrian Swain was sacked from his school in December for wearing trainers and tracksuit bottoms at work. He lost an appeal against his dismissal in March, with Tower Hamlets Council saying he had set a bad example to pupils by refusing to follow management instructions.
  • A lecturer was sent home to change after Birmingham Metropolitan College introduced a dress code last month. As well as telling staff what to wear, the code says "outrageous (hair) styles and colours are not acceptable", jewellery should not be "excessive or unconventional", earrings not "obtrusive or ostentatious" and tattoos covered.
  • Kirklees Council suspended Aishah Azmi, a TA, from a Dewsbury school in 2006, after she refused to remove her veil. Ms Azmi was told it created a barrier between her and pupils.

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