The issue - Dress codes

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
What teachers wear to work is not simply a matter of personal preference or their own professional judgment, but imposing rules about suitable attire could backfire

As soon as the sun comes out, parks and beaches across the UK are filled with scantily clad Brits eager for any opportunity to soak up the rays. Even at work, standards are allowed to drop ever so slightly as high heels are swapped for sandals and the shirt comes undone at the collar.

But teachers might have to think twice before slipping into something more comfortable. Education Secretary Michael Gove is on record as advocating a dress code for teachers, saying that it makes schools more professional and commands more respect from pupils.

He also believes that parents are in favour of smartly dressed teachers: "In some of the best schools, headteachers are responding to parental wishes by having a strict uniform code for pupils and ensuring that staff dress professionally," says Mr Gove.

Few teachers would disagree with the importance of dressing professionally. But being told what to wear by your boss is another matter altogether. Can a headteacher dictate what teachers should wear to school?

Legally, headteachers can introduce a dress code, but cannot impose something that could be interpreted as constituting sexual, racial or religious discrimination. "We don't have a particular problem with a code that says teachers should dress in a certain way for work," says Amanda Brown, head of employment, conditions and rights at the NUT.

"But any teacher who isn't happy with a dress code has a right to challenge that and ask for a consultation process with colleagues."

Although teachers can register their objections to a dress code, ultimately the decision is a matter for the headteacher.

In 2008, Adrian Swain was fired for refusing to swap his trainers and tracksuit bottoms for shoes and a suit. The maths and science teacher had taught at St Paul's Way Community School in east London for 17 years and argued that the acting headteacher was "inconsistent" in imposing a new dress code.

Bringing in a dress code is often counterproductive for headteachers, says Ms Brown. She believes heads would be unwise to impose a dress code on unwilling staff. "Heads may not know about particular requirements," she says. "A dress code should be for a teacher's professional judgment."

All professionals, including teachers, have the right to wear clothing that is appropriate to the nature of their work. Design and technology teachers do not want to get sawdust over their suits and drama teachers need to be able to move freely if they are teaching physical theatre.

Suitable work wear will also differ for primary and secondary teachers. "I'm not going to come to school in a suit when the prospect of it being paint splattered is high," writes one teacher on the TES forums.

"I wear fitted T-shirts, cardigans or jumpers, shirts, knee-length skirts (with or without tights, depending on weather) or trousers. It is unreasonable to expect foundation and key stage 1 teachers to be impeccably dressed."

While the majority of teachers want to dress professionally, one teacher's smart is another teacher's day-wear, and in some cases, headteachers have a right to raise the issue.

Liz Robinson, headteacher at Surrey Square Junior School in south London, has only had to speak to staff about the issue once or twice, on both occasions "about visible underwear," she says.

"I certainly think that heads and governing bodies have a responsibility to set a clear expectation, in line with a staff code of conduct."

Teachers at Surrey Square have a dress code that specifies no hats or beachwear, but in broad terms it comes down to common sense. "I basically ask people to look smart without being too specific," says Ms Robinson.

"I think it is important to put the responsibility on to the individuals to make sensible and appropriate choices. Ultimately, every school is different and I think that as long as it is clear up front what the expectation is, it is fair enough."


- Headteachers have the right to introduce a dress code for staff.

- This should not discriminate on grounds of sex, race or religion - ie, requiring teachers to wear different clothes according to their gender.

- If you are not happy with a dress code, you have the right to challenge it.

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