You don’t see gowns much in schools any more. You did once, and of course some of our older public schools still maintain the tradition but state schools have long since dispensed with the notion of teachers wearing gowns at all.
I think that this is immensely sad. As their continued use in universities suggests, gowns are no meaningless frippery: they speak to the status of the wearer as a qualified member of an educated community. On the most formal of ceremonial days, the full regalia of gowns with hoods allows the interested observer to detect the qualifications of all those gathered, but even the day-to-day observation of a plain black gown hung on a tutor’s door is a constant reminder of that person’s effort and engagement with their subject.
Teachers ought to be entitled to some part of this symbolism, too. Teachers all possess degrees. They are entitled to the gowns of their academic station, and they are entitled, too, to make clear to each other, to their students and to the wider community, that they have valid and valuable academic qualifications and merit a certain level of respect for them.
In general, state schools seem to pay too little attention to the value of ritual and symbolism, although schools are, of course, awash with it – whole-school assemblies can be found in every state school in the land and these moments of communal togetherness reveal to our students who we are and what we value.
Gowns are a less direct form of ritual than the ceremony of an assembly, but they could be significant, nonetheless. Teachers are not their pupils’ friends, or fellow students, or parents, but something else that combines aspects of all of these and significantly more. They are entitled to respect for their academic accomplishments and for their work; a mark of the distinction of their role and of their own achievements would, I think, be no bad thing.
I don’t imagine schools will be rushing to reintroduce the gown for their staff, but I do hope that more people will start to wonder why universities have kept them and we have not. After all, are our greatest houses of learning those places with the richest research or those where the foundational work of learning for life is done? Why should university colleagues be resplendent in their gowns and teachers be left in the cold?
John David Blake is a history leading practitioner and a writer on education @johndavidblake
This is an edited version of an article from the 1 January edition of TES. To read the full article click here (free to subscribers). Also, this week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here