Top marks for inspectors' clothing standards

27th January 2006 at 00:00
It was in character for Ted Wragg to use his last ever column in The TES to rail against the linking of Ofsted and uniforms after the former chief inspector issued a dress code for his staff.

Much as I esteem Ted Wragg and praise his memory, I say, "Good for David Bell."

In the fight to raise standards, there is a definite place for paying attention to how people look. The donning of a uniform not only sets a standard but also avoids a daily decision about what to wear and how to wear it, and frees the mind for higher things. Give young people a school uniform, and they have something fairly harmless to rebel against as they pass through stroppy adolescence. They can demonstrate creativity by the way they adapt it. The dress code just sets the boundaries.

The sartorial standards of inspectors had started to slip at least 15 years ago. Margaret Smart (a "real" chief inspector in the original mould, not one of these new-fangled Ofsted ones) expressed regret that she had seen inspectors with dirty shoes.

Inspection outfits have always been a matter for much agonising in the trade. A life lived out of a suitcase makes an appropriate level of elegance difficult to achieve and explains why so many inspectors, not naturally Gothic, wear black. The trick, by the way, is to take the scruffy clothes away with you on Monday morning, leave them to be dry-cleaned at your hotel during the inspection, and pick them up at the end of the week.

Obviously, some people have been mixing up their clean and their dirty outfits Dressing down is not generally thought to be an acceptable way for inspectors to blend in, no matter how deprived the circumstances. In fact, some students from down-town Liverpool once made it very clear that they expected inspectors to arrive looking very smart and in big cars. They regarded it as a compliment. What subsequently happened to the cars is another story.

The high expectations associated with a smart suit were borne out by a college colleague, newly switched to teaching from a graduate training scheme at the Ford motor company. He commanded an unusual level of respect from his apprentice students because, as they explained: "You're different, aren't you? You always look as though you mean it."

Another friend's mum would have understood. She told him always to wear a suit when doing exams because it made you feel you were doing justice to yourself. It didn't stop him failing his second-year exams, but he went on to get a PhD (presumably by thesis and wearing what he liked).

The "what to wear" debate has been a sub-text to education work for as long as I can remember. As students, we really were expected to wear gowns for lectures, and they covered up other shortcomings, known as mini-skirts. In the 1970s, my feminist dungarees were frowned on by the college caretaker, who always stood in the entrance hall in a suit. Most students thought he was the principal until we explained that principals didn't stand in the hallway, but stayed in their offices behind piles of paper.

In the 1980s, our head of business studies was still trying to stop female staff wearing trouser suits. These days, no doubt he would be begging them to put them on. Our trainee primary teachers agonised over whether it was acceptable to wear trousers or leggings when crawling about among very small people.

So perhaps educational standards really are tied up with clothes. Taking a pride in how you look may be an essential step on the way to taking a pride in what you do. The young people who started college courses in catering, beauty therapy and tourism earlier this term visibly grew into the role as soon as they donned their new uniforms for the job. The trains in Japan probably don't run punctually to the second because the station staff wear smart suits and white gloves, but there is a connection.

The griping of the civil service unions about David Bell's efforts to smarten up his staff may be more than a ritual knee-jerk. It isn't about pay - you can even buy "office suits" at Matalan and New Look. No, the problem may be that once they smarten up and start to work more effectively, they may not need anything like 2,500 staff to do the same amount of work. That could shift a few more resources into education's delivery end. So let's hear it for the Ofsted dress code.

Beryl Pratley is an education consultant and college governor, and was once a "real" HMI

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