Uniforms are the centre of an age-old debate; are they good or bad? Do they help or inhibit learning? Do they prevent bullying? Are they more practical for families? The questions go on. But now, school skirts are stealing the focus, raising questions like; how short is too short? Who’s to blame for the hitched up hemlines? And what can, and should, be done about inappropriate skirt length?
Some schools have blamed the fashion industry for pupils’ disregard for appropriate dress; however, generations of women (and men) are likely to remember conversations with their own parents about how much skin on show is too much. But now, a new disturbing light is being shed on the debate, as schools are beginning to regard skirt length as a safeguarding issue rather than a disciplinary matter.
Scapegoating safeguarding issues
Currently, around 63 schools across England have completely banned their female pupils from wearing skirts.1 Their reasoning includes guidance on skirt length being repeatedly ignored and time that could be spent on teaching and learning being wasted addressing skirt issues. However, the headteacher of a school recently joining the ranks of school skirt prohibitionists has added another one to the list, saying:
“It’s not pleasant for male members of staff, and students either, if the girls [wearing short skirts] have to walk upstairs and sit down. After a while, it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue.”2
While some arguments for banning school skirts may have an understandable foundation (i.e. addressing skirt issues could eat into lesson time, impacting teaching and learning), it is concerning to hear that not only are a pupil’s bare legs being dubbed a safeguarding issue because they make their male teachers, the people responsible for safeguarding them, uncomfortable, but that the pupils themselves are the ones being apportioned the blame for the arising safeguarding issue.
Another school enforced their ban following an incident where a male member of staff was left feeling uncomfortable after a female pupil met his uniform challenge with the remark “You shouldn’t be looking at my legs”. (Stanford, 2015) The incident suggests that the school skirt debate can be a double-edged sword, if students are found playing on social sensitivities as an excuse for breaking school rules.
However, in each case, surely there is a bigger issue at hand, with a blanket ban on skirts only a superficial and unfair solution to a much more deep-rooted issue, echoing elements of the wider feminist debate over women’s clothing. And surely a school is the best setting to educate pupils on these issues rather than brush them under a rug?
Schools should be wary of the ‘simple solution’, because it doesn’t always prove to be the best. While this may limit the potential for safeguarding issues within the school’s grounds arising from school skirt length, it’s an unrealistic representation of life beyond school.
It’s an unfortunate truth that female pupils will likely go on to work environments where their dress choices will be heavily scrutinised. Isn’t it preferable to teach female pupils about appropriate dress in business and work situations, rather than force them to wear “business-like trousers” on all occasions for fear of provoking male attention? (Stanford, 2015)
Not only this, but an element of discrimination could be argued if females’ bare legs are being scrutinised when males’ are not, for instance, when on the school sports field. If a school implements a policy disadvantaging females or males this is a case of indirect discrimination. While indirect discrimination can sometimes be legal if a good enough reason for it can be proved in court, schools are still at risk of angering parents and disheartening pupils.3 Some parents have already complained that it’s a “minority ruining it for everyone”.4
Schools also put themselves at risk of backlash over double-standards if their clamp down on school skirts is furious enough to fuel a policy overhaul, but their worries about the height of male pupils’ waistlines barely raises a whisper.
A better way?
It’s easier said than done to say simply set out a strict uniform policy and successfully enforce it throughout your school. Although some schools are steaming ahead with their bans on school skirts, others have made U-turns on the decision to search for a better way to tackle inappropriate dress.
One school is taking a focus-group approach, reaching out to parents, students, staff and governors to try and determine the best way to tackle the sensitive situation. Other schools are allowing pupils only to wear skirts from selected providers at a standard shape and length.
It’s not a quick solution, but isn’t it better to spend the time finding a way to properly enforce a fair uniform policy, than to use the short term solution, and risk discriminating against female pupils, while also failing to address the real issues at hand?
1 School Skirt Ban, ‘Welcome to schoolskirtban.co.uk’ <http://www.schoolskirtban.co.uk/site/> [Accessed: 3 August 2015]
2 Peter Stanford (2015) ‘School skirts – the long and short of it’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11775014/School-skirts-the-long-and-short-of-it.html> [Accessed: 3 August 2015]
3 Citizens Advice, ‘Indirect discrimination’ <https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/discrimination/what-are-the-different-types-of-discrimination/indirect-discrimination/> [Accessed: 3 August 2015]
4 BBC news (2015) ‘Plymstock School skirt ban over hemline row’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-33387144> [Accessed: 3 August 2015]