Smart move

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Teachers used to dress formally, like everyone else. Then they got casual - like everyone else. Now the era of performance indicators is ushering in a more studied look. Susan Clark looks at the politics of keeping up appearances in the classroom.

On his first day back after the Christmas break, Edinburgh art teacher David Clark was taking his 10 and 11-year-old pupils through the rudiments of printing. The class crowded round him and, as usual, one boy, also called David, squeezed into place next to his favourite teacher. For a while everything was fine, but then Mr Clark noticed something strange going on. Every time he looked round, David threw his hands over his face, hiding his eyes with his fingers. After this had happened a few times, Mr Clark asked him what was the matter.

"You look evil, Sir."

David Clark suddenly became aware of the source of the boy's distress. During the holiday he had grown a goatee beard, and he realised that with his long, black, curly hair, the look that had seemed so dashing over the Christmas and new year holiday had acquired a touch of the Satanic. He decided to shave it off.

The way teachers dress and the colours they choose can have a profound effect on their pupils - for wee David it threatened his enjoyment of art - yet few schools have an explicit dress code for staff. Often it is left up to the teacher to assess the suitability of what the pupils - and the other teachers - are wearing. However, there has been a change in the classroom. Perhaps driven by a renewed emphasis on school uniforms, more and more teachers are dressing up for their pupils.

Teachers' fashion has always been in a class of its own. In the late Sixties, when mini-skirts were all the rage, teachers were still expected to dress formally. Liz Paver, head of Intake primary in Doncaster and a former president of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "When I started you were expected to wear a smart suit, and many secondary schools still expected staff to wear a gown. My head would have been shocked if any of his female staff had turned up in trousers."

But attitudes to the way teachers dress slowly began to change. The move to more informal teaching methods in the Seventies was accompanied by an increasingly casual dress code for students and teachers alike. Jeans and t-shirts displaced gowns and mortar boards, and the stereotype of the untidy, corduroy-bedecked teacher was born.

The ethos at this time was that dressing too formally could drive a wedge between teacher and pupil. Derek Curran, now a deputy head at Penicuik high school near Edinburgh, joined a school in a deprived area of Edinburgh after qualifying in 1982. "It was in a run-down area, and we felt that if we dressed casually we could lessen the gulf between us and the kids," he says. "So we wore what they wore."

Mr Curran took the idea to heart and wore t-shirts, jeans and even shorts with pride. At the time he felt it made him more accessible. But that meeting of two worlds, the teacher's and the pupil's, on an equal footing has suddenly gone out of fashion. The pressure to look business-like in the new world of league tables and pupilparent choice is growing; teachers are recognising too that an over-casual approach to dress can have a negative influence on relationships with the children.

Susan Scarsbrook, headmistress at Sudbourne primary in Brixton, south London, says: "Dress can affect your credibility with pupils, although that's not to say that a particularly talented teacher can't carry a class regardless of what he or she is wearing."

Many schools insist that male teachers wear a collar and tie, and some even frown on women in trousers - Mr Clark knows of at least one Lothian school reprimanding a female teacher for this heinous sin.

Whether a dress code is official or tacit, many teachers are responding. Mr Curran discarded his t-shirts and shorts for a suit long ago, and mr Clark, who is now principal teacher of art at Grangemouth high school near Falkirk, has worn a collar and tie to school every day since he entered the profession in 1996. "The kids expect you to be smarter than they are. Our school has a dress code for pupils now so we have to go one further," he says. "You have to set an example and set yourself apart from them. We have to be figures of authority. They wear dark fleeces and we wear collars and ties."

At Sudbourne there is no formal dress code; teachers are encouraged to wear clothes "suitable" for dealing with young children. But Susan Scarsbrook admits she has had to talk to some teachers, mostly supply, about what they are wearing. "You can't bend down to small children in a tight, short skirt," she says. "I will say something if the dress is too extravagant, but generally I want my teachers to feel relaxed with what they are wearing and the children to feel confident with them."

Comfortable clothes that allow teachers to climb on a chair to pin pictures on the wall are essential, especially at primary level. Easy-to-wash is also imperative with the daily risks of pen, paint - and sometimes vomit.

Smaller children may also be intimidated by a teacher in a dark, smart suit, although dark clothing of any sort can affect pupils. Caroline Bennett, public relations and marketing manager at image consultancy Color Me Beautiful, says teachers should be careful, not just about the sort of clothes they wear, but also about the colours. "Many colours can give the wrong message. For instance, red can be aggressive, and black too sombre. Teachers should stick to gentle, accessible and relaxing colours." Her suggestions are green, grey, pink and purple.

But while primary teachers can dress casually, there is increasing evidence of a tightening up of dress at secondary level. "For some younger teachers, who may be only a few years older than the sixth-formers, a more formal dress gives them a little distinction," says Liz Paver.

There is no official dress code at Mr Clark's school, but most of his colleagues dress smartly. "I don't think it makes us any less accessible, but it can help with discipline and respect," he says. However, he does have his hair long and wears Kicker boots, similar to those of his pupils, which gives them something in common. "I can have a joke with the kids over my boots. And they like the fact that I wear designer shirts. They often ask me about my clothes and I can talk to them about it on their level. Kids are always interested in fashion."

The pressure to be smart tends to fall at sixth-form colleges, where the students have no dress code and their relationship with the teacher is voluntary and ostensibly more mature. At English teacher Richard Hoyes's college in Farnham, Surrey, many of the staff still wear jeans. "There is much less pressure to dress up than there has been in secondary schools where I've worked," says TES columnist Hoyes, who always wears a tie. "In my first job I was told to get rid of my beard, but here we are supposed to relate to the young people more by being casual."

Despite the growing emphasis on smarter dress in the classroom, there are no hard and fast rules. If, for instance, the children are from a deprived area, wearing designer suits may be seen as insensitive. Teachers have to assess the code, especially when it is not made explicit, by observing what colleagues and pupils are wearing. But there are more schools where projecting an image of an efficient business unit has become integral to the day-to-day running of the establishment, and smarter pupils and smarter teachers are all part of that.

Dress codes for staff are more prevalent, but most heads stop short of suggesting a teacher should shave off his beard. They leave the kids to do that.


Pink: feminine, gentle, accessible and non-threatening. Can be relaxing. "Partic- ularly good for those working with very young children,"

says Caroline Bennett, PR and marketing manager for image con- sultancy Color Me Beautiful.

Blue: although associated with the police and authority, blue can have a calm- ing effect. Navy is a safe colour to wear, smart but not too severe.

Yellow: you have to be careful with the shade of yellow, but it can be toned down with navy or charcoal grey. Yellow is a happy colour, associated with summer.

Can be cheertul.

Orange: like yellow, associated with happiness but less calming. Usually seen as enthusiastic and vibrant. Creative.

Purple: everyone can wear purple but they have to be careful about the shade otherwise it can be too overpowering. Cre ative, yet has quiet authority.

Green: great colour for the classroom, especially the sprucey, forest greens. Pro.

jects authority but is also calming.

Colours to avoid Gaudy shades of any of the above. For- est green is good but lime green isn't y it is too abrasive and unsettling.

Black: dismal and funereal. Such a mor- bid colour belongs to mourning or a sophisticated party scene. Try alternatives such as charcoal grey or camel.

Brown: boring. Makes communication difficult.

Red: although it projects confidence it can also be domineering, aggressive and bossy.

Source: Color Me Beauiiful (wwweelorme.cem).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today