Jacket or jumper? Skirt or trousers? Tie or no tie - or even bow tie? These are decisions many teachers like to make for themselves. But a growing number of schools now have written dress codes for staff - highlighted by the recent example of supply teacher Steve Smith, sent home from St Ambrose College in Cheshire for refusing to wear a tie with his suit.
So does your school have the right to tell you how to dress? The answer is yes, within reason. Most contracts require staff to carry out "all reasonable instructions", and following a dress code would fall into this category.
So what would make a dress code unreasonable? Unfortunately, fashion sense does not come into it. You may not like twin-sets or tucked-in shirts, but that is just tough. Nor can you claim the right to dress a certain way just because you have always dressed that way - as demonstrated in the case of PE teacher Adrian Swain. Appealing against his dismissal from a school in east London for wearing trainers and tracksuit, Mr Swain pointed out that he had worn a similar outfit throughout his 30-year career, but his appeal was rejected last year.
On the other hand, if there are health and safety issues surrounding the code, you should be able to challenge it. Wearing a tie in a design and technology workshop? Running a physical theatre class while clunking around in dress shoes? There are obvious hazards involved. Some teachers even find that wearing a collar and tie can contribute to a sore throat if they are talking to the class all day.
"Teachers have the right to dress safely and comfortably," argues Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT. "A dress code should take account of all the different activities that teachers are required to do."
Discrimination on grounds of faith or gender may also be an issue. Dress codes insisting on ties for men could be seen as sexual discrimination. Steve Smith considered a legal challenge on this basis before deciding against it. To succeed, such a challenge would have to show that the school's dress code was more lenient to one gender than to the other. In other words, a code requiring ties for men and equivalent smart clothes for women would be judged fair.
The best approach is to point out ways in which the code may prevent you from doing your job to the best of your ability. "Smart clothes could make you a less effective teacher," suggests educational psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein. "If your pupils are from an ordinary background, they might find a suit intimidating. It could make you seem less approachable."
You could also consider inviting the head to one of your lessons to see first-hand why the dress code is a problem. Once they appreciate how active you are, or how messy it can be teaching art or running science experiments, they may be willing to compromise. "I ask teachers to arrive at school looking smart, and to wear jackets in assembly," says one independent school head. "But if staff feel they need to take off their tie in the classroom, that is up to them."
IF YOU DISAGREE WITH THE CODE
- Chat informally to the leadership team, pointing out your concerns.
- Focus on professional issues and health and safety - not fashion.
- If staff are all in agreement about the code's failings, write a joint letter to the governors.
- If you feel that adhering to the dress code would incur unfair costs, consider asking for a clothing allowance.
- If you receive a disciplinary warning for breaching the code, you have the right to appeal in writing to the head. Approach your union for advice, and in the meantime comply with the code.
- The key legal issue is whether or not the code is "reasonable".