Following the news that MPs will no longer have to wear ties to work, Adam McNicholas considers the case for schools
“Do I think it essential that a Member [of Parliament] has to wear a tie? No.” So said the speaker of the House of Commons last week. Admitting that opinions on his own sartorial choices “may vary” (to the amusement of MPs), at his discretion, male MPs no longer have to wear ties when speaking from Parliament’s green benches.
In a unilateral declaration, at the whim of Mr Bercow, history was made as the convention was formally confined to the past.
Immediately, prompted by recent events at Isca Academy in Exeter (where a group of boys wore skirts to protest the school’s refusal to allow boys to wear shorts, even in hot weather), I imagined dissent in secondary schools across the country. Picture the scene: “Act like a grown up, you say… Well, if it’s ok for MPs not to wear ties, surely the same standards can apply to us?”.
No doubt in the coming weeks the debate will rage between The Modernisers and the The Traditionalists. They will take to the pages of The Guardian and The Telegraph respectively to prosecute their case, in which both will argue that it’s not about the tie itself but, more important, its symbolism and what it represents.
It is the same argument I heard time and again when I was an advisor to successive shadow education secretaries between 2011-2015. Ties are important because they are part of the ethos of a school that helps to create an environment conducive for learning and ‘raising standards’, the argument goes. The concept of ‘marginal gains’ – the small tweaks that drive high performance – as espoused by author and Olympian Matthew Syed, has even been recruited to the cause. In some circles, your stance on the tie – to insist or not to insist – determines your position on ‘high performance and standards’. This, of course, is total nonsense.
Professionalism is not about wearing a tie all day long
Let’s explore the case for. Insisting on a tie on the grounds that it ‘looks professional’ creates a fixed view of what it means to be high performing. Uniform, by its very definition, means to remain the same in all cases and at all times, unchanging in form or character. A modern definition of professionalism must surely move beyond this narrow requirement.
Drilling into young people that professionalism means wearing a tie, is to convey entirely the wrong message. Professionalism, such a valued expectation in today’s labour market – is about being determined, solving problems and having autonomy over success and failure. It’s not about wearing a tie all day long.
The events at Isca Academy exposed an error in professionalism by those entrusted to uphold it. In refusing to acknowledge the discomfort of pupils trying to concentrate in temperatures upward of 30 degrees, the headteacher displayed an error of judgement made worse by her statement declaring “we are doing our utmost to enable both students and staff to remain as comfortable as possible”. This statement was issued in conjunction with her commitment not to budge on ‘the policy’. No wonder the boys felt mugged off and took to their skirts.
Wearing a tie isn’t about standards, it’s about ethos. And on those grounds I make two concessions. First, that it’s not for me to tell a head how to run her or his school. Nor is that my intention. Second, agreed standards of behaviour are clearly important for creating the required levels of courtesy and conduct, especially for pupils where that isn’t the case at home.
But surely better to follow the lead of Mr Bercow in favouring a flexible clothing policy that gives ‘regard to respect for each other and for the institution’. Uniformity has rarely been seen as a driver for high performance.