Loose shirts and the seven-year itch

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Coming back to part-time teaching seven years after taking early retirement has been an eye-opener. There has been progress in key concerns - performance management, target-setting, workload, national curriculum revision, literacy and numeracy. But there remains one area of school life where there's been little advance. It was a serious problem when I jumped ship and it remains an unsolved headache. It is an issue that claims probably more staff energy and wasted words than any single item of curriculum debate. I refer to pupils walking shamelessly along corridors and around classrooms with their shirts hanging out.

How pupils react to being told to tuck their shirt in is an effective gauge of staff reputation. The most feared teachers can expect the resulting tucked-in shirt to last at least until the pupil is out of sight. Staff who are mildly respected, but not seen as hardliners, are likely to have their wishes adhered to for as long as it takes the pupil to pass the teacher concerned. To "no accounts", pupils will pretend to have a hearing problem or, even worse, put up an argument that the garment billowing like Richard Branson's latest air balloon is actually tucked in at the waist.

What a problem loose shirts present to the poor teacher who really doesn't give a fig one way or the other. After all, shirts worn over trousers are a respectable fashion statement all over the planet, so why should school be any different? And aren't there so many more important things to be bothered about?

The outdated attitude of so many schools to the importance of shirts being inside trousers can put younger staff under unwanted pressure. They can feel they have to enforce school policy, which can easily bring about a stand-off with pupils. The alternative is to ignore the favoured code and risk being seen as weak and ineffective, by pupils and older staff alike.

Some schools have made inroads by allowing pupils to wear sweatshirts, but this doesn't guarantee success: shirt tails can still emerge beneath the sweatshirt's waistband.

One worrying aspect is the unwillingness (or is it inability?) of the "get-your-shirt-in" gestapo to penetrate to the deeper levels of debate. I even did some supply in a school that refused a boy entry to sit his GCSE exams until he agreed to tuck in his shirt. Mum made overtures to the local press and, with rather a bad bout of publicity in the offing, an agreement was reached whereby the lad sat his exams in the deputy's office.

There is, however, a way to end this conflict. Consider the behaviour of the young down the ages and act upon it. Announce in assembly and post notices all around the school to reinforce the new rule: shirts must not be tucked inside trousers.

Alan Combes left full-time teaching in 1996 and currently works as a writer and part-time teacher in a Yorkshire secondary school

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