Time to take the top gear

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Do you drive a banger or a beemer? Your choice of car is more important than you might have thought, as Susan Elkin and Clare Dean reveal

The photocopier might be the bane of teachers'Jlives inside school but the thing that gets them going outside is their cars. Specifically parking them. Do they get two tyres up on the kerb of a patch of battered grass 10 minutes' walk in the rain from their classroom, or their own place by the front door with white lines to help them just a few brisk steps from the head's office?

And then there is who is driving what. Somehow it seems wrong if the school secretary turns up in a new, gleaming Mini Cooper when the deputy head is still getting by with a slightly battered green Renault Megane littered with marking.

No matter what anyone says about cars just being there to get you from A to B, to a lot of people they are a whole lot more than that. And teachers are not exempt from that rule.J Elizabeth Esson smiles wryly when men sidle up to her wanting to talk about her car. No dull Fiat Punto or Ford Focus for this design and technology teacher - she drives an electric blue Lotus Elise.

And male teachers at the south London academy where she works are desperate to get a lift with her. There is only one problem though: its sleek fibreglass body is not entirely suited to their physique.

"Older colleagues find it difficult to get in because it's so low," she says. "Male colleagues ask how fast it goes and because we're on two sites I often get asked for lifts."

Her car is one of several swanky motors in the car park at Haberdashers'

Aske's Hatcham College in London. Elizabeth bought her Elise second-hand two years ago - she won't say how much it cost, but new it would have set her back about pound;28,000.

The car, capable of doing 0-60 in under 60 seconds and with a maximum speed of around 130mph, is in the most expensive insurance group (20) - but does around 34 miles per gallon.

Showy it might be, but Elizabeth has even managed to make use of the Elise in sixth form lessons as an example of the use of fibreglass and how it has been glued.

"I hope my choice of car shows that I take design very seriously," she says. "It's just such a fantastic design. I love the way it looks - and it's really zippy."

So what does she think it say about her? "It shows that I take design seriously, but also that it's a bit fun."

Jed Dmoch-owsky's big red, bench-seated, 1963 Ford Zephyr makes a statement about him and his attitude to life too and turns heads as he pulls in the Haberdashers' car park, its engine purring. The English teacher has owned the 2.59, mark 3, 6-cylinder car for for 23 years. Its registration letters are ALB, so he calls it Alby after the albatross in The Ancient Mariner, the poem by Coleridge, reflecting his love of English.

In his spare time Jed plays the guitar and does 1960s gigs in pubs, and he says: "I think it's vital pupils realise their teachers are rounded people.

My car and my music are another part of me and it's important that I don't stop being what I am when I'm teaching."

So much so that he sometimes takes his guitar into school to add another dimension to lessons and stop teaching becoming "too mechanical".

Jed thinks his "very pretty" car is an icon, which lifts spirits and improves relationships with pupils.

And Kim Barlow, PA to the chief executive of the Haberdashers' Federation, agrees cars can do just that. She drives in every day in a Vauxhall Meriva, personalised in the West Ham colours of claret and blue, largely to distinguish it from her husband's Jaguar, which is defiantly festooned in Tottenham Hotspur's blue and white.

Her car makes a cheery clear statement about her football loyalty which pupils respond to with good humour. They laugh and say "West Ham is rubbish, Miss" when the team is going through a bad patch.

More seriously, she says: "It's a good icebreaker and talking point with pupils. Often they don't think of a woman supporting a football team so it makes them think."

So do our cars say anything more about us than: "This is what I can afford", or are some more serious messages leaking out?

"Behind the wheel, we are all Italians," says Stephen Stradling from the Transport Research Institute at Napier University, Edinburgh. "All of a sudden it matters what we drive and how we drive it. Many people use their heart and not their head - it is a sense of expression, the costume they choose to wear when performing on the open road."

For those who want to be noticed, it is paramount to be seen in the right car. A badly chosen model could say all the wrong kind of things, such as "under achiever" or, worse still, "penniless teacher".

Research by The TES shows there is no such thing as the stereotypical teacher's car. So for those who complain "bloody teachers" when stuck behind a Citroen 2CV or a Mini Metro, think again.

A telephone survey of 500 teachers discovered they favour a wide range of makes including Volvos, Mercedes and MGs - and, surprise, surprise, the older teacher the more expensive the model such as BMW Series 5.

Smaller cars were especially popular models with women teachers, according to the study, carried out three years ago. Try telling Elizabeth Esson that.

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