Why a bad haircut shows us what's wrong with education

Most teachers avoid having their hair cut by a former pupil, but it can be an educational experience, says Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Haircuts: most teachers avoid former pupils who are now hairdressers

For understandable reasons, most teachers avoid using a hairdresser operating inside their school's catchment area. 

Few want to risk placing such a precious asset in the hands of a former student, whoever it is and whatever the training. If things go horribly wrong, it adds an extra complication to proceedings, with the teacher perhaps never entirely discounting some possible hidden motive behind the enduring ruination on top.

Watch: Teacher on why she cut off hair to support bullied pupil

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I will not forget, for instance, the time one former colleague agreed to have her hair done locally by an ex-tutee. She came back from the salon with a style unmistakably reminiscent of the Richard III portrait in the National Portrait Gallery – a likeness that she herself first spotted. 

Another teacher bravely agreed to put herself at the mercy of one of our Year 10 girls on work experience. It was perhaps the first and last time that a hairstyle has ever been inspired by the Arc de Triomphe.

The sweet smell of singed hair

Or there was the time another member of staff was reduced to hiding his long and luxuriant locks under a huge beret, after a local barber gave him a rather less nuanced hair dye than he had intended. He’d hoped for the fair-haired, free-flowing former Brad Pitt look, but came back as Jimmy Savile. 

Those of us with little or no hair, however, can happily opt for the catchment cut. We have very little to lose. On the one occasion recently when I did venture out of catchment – after a supposed friend recommended the new Turkish barbers closer to home – I resolved within minutes never to do so again. The people running it were absolutely merciless. 

Turkish barbers appear to be the Michaela Community School of the hairdressing world. Smalltalk was replaced by a vague smell of burning. Even the tiniest of stray hairs was shaved and singed to oblivion. At one point, I thought my whole head might catch fire, given that the blaze burning freely inside one of my nostrils appeared to be getting out of control.

In contrast, when I go to one of my regular haunts inside catchment, I am always treated with sympathy, kindness and respect.

This always slightly surprises me, as I represent “school”, and so many hairdressers tell me how “terrible” they were there. I reassure them that school “sadly doesn’t suit everyone”, and have to agree with them when they say how much time they wasted there. 

Educational combover

There really is nowhere like the local hairdresser’s for being reminded of the ongoing inadequacies of the present system. Nowhere do you look at yourself in the eye, listen to others, and reflect on the great and now growing distance between the secondary curriculum and helpful, meaningful educational courses for all. 

The new GCSEs, the English Baccalaureate, league tables and cuts to school budgets all encourage us to move even further away from offering a more suitable range of flexible and stimulating courses.

In fact, it is to many schools’ immense credit (including ours) that they are prepared to take a hit on their league-table points, position and progress scores by still offering some students the chance to flourish on alternative and more helpful paths. 

For what secondary schools are being made to offer – more so than ever – is the educational equivalent of a combover. It’s an absurdly outmoded structure, is hopelessly narrow in its coverage and, if we look at it at all closely, we can all see right through it. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire. 

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