Former House of Commons EducationSelect Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy and communications at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week every month.
A little while ago, an acquaintance of mine — a rather dapper management consultant — confessed that he’d been asked to change the way he dressed in the workplace.
He’d been at a well-regarded media organisation, and, trying to impress, turned up in a sharp suit, crisp shirt, polished shoes — the works.
After a few days, colleagues gently suggested he was dressing “too smartly”.
Clearly, trainers, hoodies and jeans were the order of the day — his traditional tailoring was apparently making people feel tense and unproductive.
The days when everyone wore suits, uniforms or overalls to work are firmly over.
Organisations now operate every dress code imaginable, from the trendy office where my consultant chum got reprimanded to a city law firm which reportedly warned short-skirted women (“generally looking like we’re going clubbing instead of to the office”) to prepare for “uncomfortable discussions” with HR.
And it seems as if schools and colleges are just as varied too.
Perhaps there’s a case for lots of us, students and staff, donning a sharper suit a little more often“
In the four places I was educated (and that itself was some time ago), the dress codes varied from prescription grey suit and school tie, through to whatever we wanted.
And, while it might be assumed that young people preferred the latter, it doesn’t seem quite that simple.
At that school — a huge public elementary in East Coast USA — there was real pressure around clothes to constantly be as trendy and up-to-date as your peers, many of whom came from wildly differing economic backgrounds.
There were times when I longed for the red jumpers and black trousers of my primary school back across the pond, and I suspect my parents felt the same.
And in colleges like those most of us work in, dress codes are rare.
Our students wear whatever they want, and certainly at Newham this contributes to a sense of youthfulness and diversity across the campuses.
Many of our students have, of course, had less than optimal experiences of previous education, and sometimes this is because they weren’t sufficiently treated like adults – something I’ve advocated in this column before, and which I know many colleagues across the country feel strongly about, too.
Not wearing uniform can be a really important way of nurturing that independence, maturity and self-responsibility.
But there’s another argument which suggests that a lack of any dress code achieves completely the opposite.
Adults, in reality, have to conform to all sorts of dress codes, whether they’re required for practical reasons — hairnets for caterers, branded t-shirts for retail staff — or for vaguer notions of officewear, as in the media and law firms mentioned earlier.
There are rules and guidelines for parties, for weddings, for travel, for meetings, and for any number of religious and cultural settings.
Given that employability skills and preparation for later life are such an important part of colleges’ teaching, there’s a real argument that some form of ‘business casual’ dress code in college could work to students’ advantage when it comes to interview time — and at the same time it could, perhaps, make them feel more trusted and respected than a ‘free-for-all’ dress policy.
Of course, many learners already wear uniform of one sort or another, engineers, for example, and construction trainees, and extending that idea might foster a sense of fairness across a college community.
Such discussions are active and alive at Newham College, and thoughts or opinions from other institutions would be really welcome.
The discussions thrive elsewhere, too, and there is research suggesting that, in fact, the impact of wearing uniform is more positive on achievement in older students than younger.
But similarly, much research is inconclusive, including that examining the influence of adults’ dress on workplace productivity.
As someone who hates wearing a tie, I have my own views on that, but perhaps there’s a case for lots of us, students and staff, donning a sharper suit a little more often.
Unless, of course, we’re planning to work for a large media firm, in which case crack out the Converse.