Why I Wear Yellow

Yellow dresses. Yellow jackets. Yellow bags.

A yellow umbrella, yellow scarves, yellow trainers – even a set of yellow underwear. I have it all. Because I love yellow? No. Absolutely not.

Since 2014, I have dressed in most professional appearances – on television or stage – in some form of yellow. But the truth is that I don’t particularly like the colour. It doesn’t suit my skin tone and it’s a bugger to keep clean. I don’t wear yellow because I like it. It is way, way more important than that.

Back in 2012, I had just finished a six-year stint as a teacher in London and was now embarking on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Missouri. The free schools policy was in full swing in England and I was fascinated and infuriated by the way the government had spun the fairly routine action of opening a new school into a political hysteria.

The school where I had taught since 2006 was caught in its maelstrom after our new building, which we had been waiting nearly 9 years for, was cancelled given to a new free school. The decision-making over these schools appeared from the outside to be short-sighted and potentially corrupt.

In the United States, a similar policy had been underway since the 1990s and I wanted to study its trajectory so that I could compare it to what was happening in England and perhaps offer some ideas on how we could avoid repeating the worst mistakes. (I even wrote a short book about it). As part of the exercise, I needed to see the letters the UK government were sending out to prospective free school founders to let them know why their proposed school was accepted or rejected.

What does this have to do with a yellow jacket? Shh, I’m getting to that!

I requested to see the free school letters in an email in September 2012. On a glorious spring day, two years later, I found myself in court over that request. Actual court. With actual judges, and actual lawyers. All because the Department for Education decided that instead of giving me the documents it would instead try to stop my studies by labelling my request as ‘vexatious’, which is polite British legal jargon for ‘a pain in the arse’.

Among many batty things about this move, possibly the biggest was that the Information Commissioners Office – the independent organisation who rule on information requests – had already agreed with me. They had officially said that releasing the documents was in the public interest!

And yet, my 31-year-old self, for having the audacity to send an email asking a question, was informed via a court notice that my motives and personal history would be raked over in a judge-led oral hearing because the Department for Education had decided after a year that I was being vexatious.

Not only would there be a day in court, but I would need to create a ‘bundle’. A bundle is a giant file of information, in which I had to include every email I had sent to the Department for Education through the year-long process. Along with every other bit of evidence I could gather together to show that I was serious in my request.

The process, which took months, was gruelling and bamboozling: entirely designed to put me off from bothering. If a government makes a citizen feel bullied, harassed and confused enough, the supposition is that the citizen might give in and decide the documents weren’t worth it. In retrospect, I sometimes think they weren’t. But I couldn’t accept being bullied into silence. That thought, alone, propelled me forward.

The Department for Education were obstructive at every turn. I spent months of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to represent myself in court when I didn’t have the cash for a lawyer, and legal aid had just been scrapped for tribunals, and I was receiving statements from DfE lawyers attempting to discredit my request.

Another problem weighed heavy in my mind. An information tribunal has three judges: one standard judge and two laypeople. They all sit up on a ‘high table’. The three judges in my case? All men. The Department for Education were bringing a barrister and a solicitor for their front bench: both men. The Information Commissioner would also be bringing a barrister and a solicitor. You guessed it. Both men.

Between all the men and all the grown-ups, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I tried to wear a suit I would end up looking like the work experience girl who’d borrowed her mum’s clothes and wound up giving testimony by accident.

If I was going to look like a wazzock, I decided then, I was going do it on my own damn terms.

In the United States, the laws which protect a citizen’s rights to see government document are called ‘sunshine laws’ – based on the old saying that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. I therefore decided that in the courtroom, when anyone looked at me, I would be wearing yellow. A Yellow Jacket. Trousers. Six-inch heels with leopards on them. (Really). If I wore that, then no matter what came out of my mouth – no matter how stupid-sounding or muddled my arguments – at the very least I would be a standing symbol of sunshine laws and shining a light on the truth.

Happily, scientific research shows that wearing yellow is a snazzy idea. Sports psychologists report that teams in red win more often than expected. For a while it was thought this was because red is a winning colour. Actually, any bright colour makes people feel differently about the wearer. Certain colours are more associated with success (red), or love (pink), or happiness (yellow). There’s a reason why the world mental health day has adopted a sunshine tone!

And so, at the court case, I wore yellow. At the subsequent appeal court case, I wore yellow. For the third court date, which the Department for Education eventually cancelled, I had yet another yellow outfit ready.

Wearing the outfits only once would have been a waste of cash. So I continued wearing them in the months that followed. Soon, the yellow jacket took on a life of its own. One day Tom Bennett spilt a drink on it, and social media went crazy. Another day I spilt coffee on it, and people began sending tweets recommending how to get it to a cleaners quickly.

At conferences, people wanted selfies. I became the regular-spotted yellow jacket Laura and people liked it.

Given that yellow is a pain to keep clean, tough to find in shops and doesn’t even suit me that much, I desperately tried to wean people off expecting it. I’d wear bright pink, or bright orange, or a lovely shade of mint at events. But, every time, someone would appear and say with a disappointed tone: “Oh, I was hoping to see the yellow jacket.”

ResearchEd 2014

On the other hand, If I did wear the yellow jacket – any yellow jacket – people would perk up and smile. “So lovely to see you in yellow!” For a long time, I assumed most people knew the full origin story of the jacket. Now I think that most people just really respond positively to yellow clothes!

In the book The Secret Life Of Bees, an older lady explains that her house is a shocking shade of pink because, while she hates it, the colour was a favourite of her disabled sister. A young girl listening to the story says she always assumed the woman must have loved pink. No, the older lady sighs, But in the great scheme of things, what’s an eyesore in comparison to making people’s heart’s soar?

By the same token, I came to the conclusion that not only was it pointless to stop wearing yellow, it was probably a bit daft. Even if yellow clashes with my skin and teeth, it’s my calling card. And to stretch an analogy way past my popularity, not wearing yellow feels a bit like Van Morrison refusing to play Brown-Eyed Girl as his last song. Sure, the man has had 53 albums since that song. Why shouldn’t he change it up? But, the heart wants what it wants. At his concerts, the crowd wants to shriek ‘sha-la-la-la’. And, in my substantially-less-good-than-Van-Morrison case, what the heart wants is yellow jackets. All. The. Time.

So, I wear yellow because it means truth. It means shining a light of honesty wherever you can. And because it’s a great symbol of our right to ask questions. But, more importantly than all that, I wear yellow because it makes people happy. What better reason can there be than that?

I wrote a book! With Drew Povey (from Educating Manchester)! It’s called The Leadership Factor, and it’s short, and cheesy, but funny. Get it here.