Page last updated at 03:41 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Teachers walk out in trainers row

By Tom Bishop
BBC News

Adrian Swain
Mr Swain said his clothing was irrelevant to his teaching ability

Teachers are not known for their dress sense, as immortalised by Grange Hill character Bill "Scruffy" McGuffy, but a row over what they wear has escalated into strike action at an east London school.

For 17 years Adrian Swain wore trainers and tracksuit bottoms while teaching Maths and Science at St Paul's Way Community School in Tower Hamlets.

He also worked with children with disabilities and helped 96% of his GCSE students achieve grades A to C in Maths.

But the 56-year-old was fired in December after refusing to follow an unofficial dress code imposed by an acting head teacher three months earlier.

Mr Swain argued his clothing was irrelevant to his teaching ability and said staff had not been consulted over the "inconsistent" dress code.

"It banned us from wearing 'anything students aren't allowed to wear', which included hooded tops and trainers," Mr Swain says.

"But teachers and students have always been treated differently, otherwise we would all be wearing school uniform."

Earlier this month Mr Swain lost an appeal against his dismissal, with Tower Hamlets council saying he set a bad example to students by refusing to follow management instruction.

Grange Hill teacher Bill "Scruffy" McGuffy
Bill "Scruffy" McGuffy had his own sense of style in TV series Grange Hill

The school's National Union of Teachers (NUT) members responded by voting for a series of one-day strikes, demanding his reinstatement.

With 60 of the school's 100 staff expected to take part, it could result in the school being closed for up to five days.

It reflects a growing strength of feeling about what teachers wear.

There is no national dress code for teachers as the Department for Children, Schools and Families leaves individual head teachers to set rules about staff dress if they feel it necessary.

A number of schools and academies do apply dress codes, including Walworth Academy in south-east London, where teachers are asked not to wear denim or leather.

'Professional' dress

Such moves have been welcomed by Conservative schools spokesman Michael Gove, who said smart dress enhanced the "professional standing" of teaching staff.

Mr Gove added he would give "full backing" to schools that introduced staff dress codes, which he said would boost their standing among pupils, parents and the wider community.

But an NUT spokeswoman said it was a mistake to regard schools as the same as other places of work.

"A school is not a business and it does not have to operate as such," she said.

"We are here to educate young people and part of their education is the appreciation of diversity - understanding that people like to be different and like to look different."

A dress code is a way to pretend something is being done to make a school better when what should be addressed is under-achievement
Adrian Swain

Tower Hamlets council said "many" of the borough's 100 schools apply dress codes although head teachers declined to comment.

At his home in Stratford, east London, Mr Swain is eager to return to St Paul's Way school but he remains defiant.

"I've never been in favour of staff dress codes or uniforms, but I would have been happy to go along with it had we been consulted beforehand," he says.

"To me, a dress code is a way to pretend something is being done to make a school better when in fact what should be addressed is under-achievement by students."

Mr Swain added: "They could have ended this whole discussion if they could point to a single piece of research which points to any relationship whatsoever between exam results and staff dress."

He believes the fact that the school is now negotiating a new dress code with staff proves that last year's code was unreasonable.

Michael Gove
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove backs dress codes for teachers

This was denied by Tower Hamlets council, which said Mr Swain was dismissed primarily because of his conduct.

A spokesman said: "Whilst students are expected to respect and adhere to the instructions of their teachers, teachers themselves should also adhere to instructions and requests from their school's management."

The council also denied Mr Swain was singled out because he was the school's NUT representative at the time of his dismissal.

"That was not the case," the spokesman said. "Mr Swain was wearing trainers, he was asked not to wear trainers, a warning was given yet he continued to wear them."

The NUT spokeswoman said St Paul's Way school will "almost certainly" shut if strikes go ahead as planned from 19 March.

"We do not want to disrupt the students but we feel they have been disrupted by Adrian's unfair dismissal," she said. "We will do everything we can to get him reinstated."

The council said it will work with the school to minimise the impact of any industrial action.

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