Close your eyes and conjure up the image of a successful and effective headteacher.
It’s likely that you have imagined a woman or a man wearing a conventional suit, with a neat haircut and shiny black shoes.
But does dressing in a traditional manner raise academic standards within a school and lead to exemplary behaviour in its pupils?
To answer that, let’s go back 22 years, to when I got my first teaching job. The boisterous Year 6 children in the school in Slough had destroyed numerous teachers before me. Supply staff refused to teach the class and the school was struggling to find anyone brave enough – or stupid enough – to take on the position. At my interview, the chair of governors made it very clear that she disapproved of my long hair and velvet shirt. The headteacher was equally scary and demanded a conservative dress code for the promotion of good behaviour and academic standards.
Fortunately for me – and my velvet shirt – no one else wanted the job, so they gave it to me.
My previous teaching practice had been a trial by fire at a school in Edmonton, North London. This is where I learned how to get the naughty kids on my side and deliver the results.
I refined my approach to teaching with my new Year 6 class in Slough, many of whom I’m still in touch with to this day. It was hard work, but the children’s behaviour improved enormously and they delivered the best Sats results within English that the school would see for years.
Fast-forward to my career as a headteacher. I have found that it has been my unconventional appearance – the flares, the open shirt, the bearskin coat, etc – that has caught the attention of the media and the public. Some have found my look entertaining, others are indifferent. But there are those who find how I look to be offensive and inappropriate, and who have suggested that my sartorial choices could be detrimental to children’s academic performance and social development.
To counter that, I can point to my school’s Sats results – aspects of which have seen us as the top-performing school locally – as well as our positive Ofsted reports. But the best argument is the children, whose behaviour and safety are outstanding, and who are happy.
So, what has this taught me? Simple: the only thing that matters about a headteacher’s or teacher’s appearance is that it expresses who they are as an individual. That could be wearing a smart suit and tie, or looking like a hippy. By expressing our individuality, we empower others to express theirs. If we are delivering the results and the children are happy, what we look like is no one’s business but our own.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School and author of Playing with Fire: embracing risk and danger in schools