Imagine: They all line up for their uniform to be inspected. Their ties, skirt lengths and shoes are checked. Once the head is content, they are excused, and the teachers return to their classrooms to do the same for their students.
While students traditionally have been required to wear a uniform, teachers have not, but could that be set to change? There are numerous reports of how Ofsted criticised one school’s teachers for setting a bad example by wearing casual clothes. Meanwhile, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw suggests that teachers should wear “business-like attire”. So do teachers need a dress code?
The majority of teachers who responded to a Teacher Support Network survey seem to think so, with two thirds believing that teachers should have a “professional standard of dress”.
One spoke of their shock at the lack of care of attention some teachers pay to their appearance, “wearing flip-flops, T-shirts cut low (and) creased skirts and dresses”. They suggest that female teachers should wear “a suit with matching blouses, jumpers in winter or nice dresses”.
Another added: “I think that teachers should make a conscious effort not to be scruffy or look like displaced festival-goers! Smart casual is what I always aim for – slightly more formal for meetings with parents or multi-agencies.”
Similarly, some schools have already introduced dress codes for staff. One London school’s dress code emphasises that staff should dress “smartly”, and that items of clothing such as cropped tops, skirts and shorts above the knee and displaying tattoos “do not portray a professional image and may cause distraction or unnecessary danger for staff and children”.
But can a dress code work? What if a teacher is not teaching in a traditional classroom-based setting or there are health and safety implications?
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates has said that teachers have the right to dress “safely and comfortably” and that a dress code should take into account “all the different activities that teachers are required to do”.
There is also the question of how teachers would feel about being asked to adopt “business-like attire”. One teacher we surveyed admits there is confusion. They argue that teachers should be “smart and tidy, but this doesn’t need to mean a suit and tie”. They added: “It’s not always appropriate to the teaching and schools are not a business environment. Teachers do need to take dress seriously and set an example for pupils, but the Ofsted view seems to be too extreme.”
In addition, provided that teachers are performing well and have a good relationship with pupils and colleagues, should their appearance even be called into question?
Arguably, the introduction of business-like attire could bring a level of formality to the learning environment that is unnecessary or unhelpful. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution to this.
The key is for teachers to dress professionally. For some schools, this may take the form of a strict dress code, clarifying the issue for teachers unsure of what to wear in the classroom. For others with a more casual culture, it may be more effective to produce guidelines on appropriate clothing rather than introduce strict rules.
Ultimately, this needs to be decided by schools themselves rather than Ofsted. If school communities can find a happy medium in which teachers are well turned out but able to dress comfortably in line with their working culture, staff will feel more confident in themselves and in their ability to inspire pupils.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).