How to turn a teacher into a class dresser

Tory MPs want teachers to smarten up, but they don't have to be stuffed shirts
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The jeans, the ear-ring, the scruffy trainers; school standards are obviously slipping. And, according to Tory backbenchers, it is teachers who have to smarten up their act.

Their plans were met with predictable outrage by teaching unions yesterday. But according to a leading image consultant, the sooner teachers stop trying to be "groovy" and get into their "pseudo-suits", the more respect would be afforded them by governors, parents and children themselves.

Dover MP David Shaw is to table an amendment to the current Education Bill which would lay down dress codes for "sloppily dressed" teaching staff. "If teachers want to be treated like professionals - as they always say they do - then they should dress like professionals," Mr Shaw said.

The Secretary of State for Education Gillian Shephard yesterday indicated that the Government would not support Mr Shaw's proposals. But he won support from Mary Spillane of image consultants Colour Me Beautiful, who is speaking at a seminar of teachers on 12 November. Not a moment too soon, she thinks.

"Most of them look like they've been dragged through a bush backwards. They roll out of bed in the morning without any thought of how they look, or even smell. I've seen revolting trainers and almost jogging suits being worn into the classroom. It's an insult to the children, profession, and it's affecting schools' prospects," she said.

The issue of respect is especially timely in the light of recent events at schools such as The Ridings in Halifax, closed because pupils are said to be out of control. If teachers want to "grab back" authority, they have to look like they warrant it, Ms Spillane said.

"You have to give children something to look up to. This doesn't mean spending a lot of money, or fussing in front of a mirror," she said. "But children, far more so than previous generations, are bombarded by visual messages - the MTV three-second culture of imagery. If the visual presentation isn't interesting then they'll switch off."

Pupils, she said, were also more image conscious, and unlikely to "identify with" a teacher who tried to dress like them.

"When you're over 30 you just look like a professional reject. It's totally misguided to try to identify with kids. The last thing they want is for a thirtysomething to think they're as groovy as they are. It's sad beyond belief."

Likewise, however, teachers are unlikely to want to look like merchant bankers or shoulder the cost of Armani suits, a fact Ms Spillane accepts.

"The last thing you could hope to do is take 40-plus Corduroy Man and put him into designer trousers," she said. "But those nice cords shouldn't be 20 years old, should fit and should see a dry cleaners' occasionally."

She advocates the "pseudo-suit" - a nice jacket and smart pair of trousers. Female teachers, she added should also appreciate that "looking mumsy" may endear them to toddlers, but no one else. She suggests a nice trouser suit - "available at all price ranges".

Before Mr Shaw gets too smug however, it should be remembered that this time last year Ms Spillane, called in to advise Tory candidates, said Tory MPs resembled "a bunch of stuffed shirts" who "needed to look more like real people".

Yesterday Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned of distracting from the real education debate into "trivial sidelines". "You shouldn't judge a book by its cover," he added.

"Those making this suggestion clearly have a folk memory of the mid-1980s when a minority of teachers leading protests at that time created a poor image for the profession," said John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

And clothes, after all, cannot maketh the teacher. The finest suit is not going to compensate for a teacher who is demotivated, overworked and, in some cases, under threat. For some schools, Ms Spillane has an alternative suggestion: "Armour plating."

Leading article, page 13

Cut-out-and-keep teach-yourself guide

Goodbye Mr Chips - Hello Mr Gap: What the best-dressed teachers should be wearing...

Men: Soft shirt, jacket and non-matching trousers are fine. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it must be clean

Women: To gain authority, lose those cardigans and open-toe sandals for a `smart trouser suit', available in all good high streets

Hair: should be neat. Fashion consultants say some teachers look `like they've been dragged through a hedge backwards'

Ear-ring: don't try to look groovy - your image-conscious pupils will think you are `sad beyond belief'. As may their parents

Leather jacket: it does not lend authority and is an uncomfortable reminder of the 1980s militant tendency

Jeans: if you are going to wear casual trousers, at least make sure they are clean and fit properly. What would the board of governors say?

Trainers and trendy shoes: pupils will not identify with your fashion sense - they like to have a sartorial division between themselves and their teacher