Inspectors lose their mini-skirts

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Ofsted orders its employees to smarten up - and stop boozing at lunchtimes. Warwick Mansell reports.

It is famed as a pillar of the Establishment, a body so associated with formality that its defining image is of its employees walking to work in bowler hats.

Yet the Bank of England appears to be distinctly more relaxed about dress codes than an organisation with which most teachers are much more familiar: Ofsted.

This week, The TES was leaked copies of Ofsted's new draft dress code which, among other things bans all denim, very low-cut tops and T-shirts.

The code, drafted by Ofsted is meant to apply to the inspectorate's 2,500 staff - which appears to place it out on its own among modern Government departments and quangos.

Ofsted employees, who include Her Majesty's Inspectors as well as childcare inspectors and legions of back-office staff, are being asked to conform to detailed clothing guidelines.

From January, staff will be expected to abide by a new code which the document, due to be released to Ofsted staff today, says would support "our professional image whilst allowing a degree of individuality".

Out, says the code, will go all denim, combat trousers, t-shirts, sweatshirts or polo shirts, or very short skirts. The code's authors also thought it necessary to include in the list "exceptionally low-cut tops"

and shorts. In, as "acceptable minimum standards", are tailored trousers, dress shirts (with or without tie), shirts with a collar, smart separates, smart religious dress and tops designed to be worn under a suit jacket.

The document warns that serious or persistent breaches of the code may lead to disciplinary action. Ofsted's human resources department has also devised new rules banning drinking any alcohol, in or out of the office including at lunchtime, during office hours. Smoking is also banned "in or close to any Ofsted building".

The codes are part of a revamp at Ofsted to coincide with new offices being opened in Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham. Its central London headquarters is also to be refurbished next year and management wants staff to be smart because the offices are regularly visited by the public.

The guidelines do not cover contracted inspectors. But they do apply to HMI and office staff, including those who have no contact with the public.

The code was greeted with incredulity by leading former HMIs.

Professor Colin Richards, of St Martin's college, Lancaster, said: "This seems totally unnecessary for people who are acting professionally. Where will it all end? Perhaps they will rule that inspectors are not allowed to drive an old banger to school, or perhaps that they should talk in a respectable accent. It's totally derogatory."

Tom Wiley, of the National Youth Agency, said: "I understand why employers do this, but there is a sense around Ofsted of a bullying culture. It would be unfortunate if this contributed to a sense of a diminishing professionalism and demotivation among staff."

A straw poll of 12 Government departments and quangos reveals how institutions with fairly stuffy images are taking a more relaxed, 21st-century approach to attire.

The Bank of England said it had no prescribed dress code, and expected staff to dress in an "appropriate manner".

A Treasury spokesman said: "It's common sense, really. If anyone has a meeting, it's a shirt and tie, but apart from that it's pretty informal."

The Department for Education and Skills, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Learning and Skills Council do not have a dress codes.

Some teachers may allow themselves a quiet smile. Dress code has been a hot topic of debate on the TES website as contributors worry about heads cracking down on teachers who wear vest tops and denim skirts.

One contributor described waiting to see whether a colleague would be asked to stop wearing a crop top to work. Another suggested action should be taken on dress after recalling female colleagues bending over in class to reveal their thongs.

An Ofsted spokeswoman said that the draft dress and alcohol codes had been issued as guidance to all staff this week, but that the details would be discussed before they were introduced in January "This guidance reflects the organisation's desire to maintain the standard of professional service which the public expects of us," she said.

But Dean Rogers, of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has hundreds of members working at Ofsted, described the move as insulting and antagonistic.

He said that the union would launch a competition next week for staff to come up with an appropriate "uniform".

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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