Head to head
Should girls ever be sent home from school because their skirts are too short?
Yes,’ says Alison Colwell, head teacher of Ebbsfleet Academy in Kent, who appeared in national newspapers last year after sending 20 teenage girls home for ‘showing too much thigh’.
We made newspaper headlines last year when I made a stand against curious parents who send their daughters to school flashing lots of thigh, or worse. We have a strict uniform policy which includes banning skirts that sit more than 5cm above the knee and as with any school rule, if that’s broken there is a sanction. So while the ideal is obviously never to send a student home, it may sometimes be necessary when rules which are fair and explicit are repeatedly ignored.
If I’m honest, I find it odd to have to justify our skirt length rule. We’re hardly the only school where rolling up skirts and showing thigh isn’t deemed acceptable. And the reason is self-evident – we wouldn’t want our girls displaying an inappropriate amount of leg and almost showing their behinds. If you don’t agree with school uniforms, that’s a healthy debate to have, but if you do have a uniform it makes sense for it be smart and for everyone to wear it correctly so that we can get on with what we’re here for - teaching and learning.
Although some headteachers make the case that short skirts can be distracting for male staff and students, that’s not my argument. It is, as I say, about looking smart and preparing young people for the world of work. If my staff wore ridiculously short skirts, I’d have a word with them too. And actually, thinking more about the distraction issue, maybe there is something in that – but for both men and women – because I do get quite distracted if I’m walking upstairs with girls wearing skirts so short that you can see their bum.
There was an argument made in the Guardian comparing the disciplining of girls wearing inappropriately short skirts worn over thick black tights to a US teenager who was sent home from school for wearing an outfit that revealed her collarbones. ‘What is so shocking or offensive about the bottom inch of a teenage girl’s thigh or the bones below her neck?’ she wrote. But if you asked the average person on the street if you can compare girls wearing a short skirt to girls showing their collarbone, I don’t even need to tell you what 99 per cent of them would say. I’m as much has a feminist as anyone and I won’t be lectured by some Guardianista child that tries to make this into a sexist argument. It’s not even a gender issue, in my view. We have school uniform rules for boys too, after all, though probably more for girls just because there happen to be more things they traditionally wear that we don’t allow, such as nail polish, make up and jewellery.
Despite the 5cm rule, we don’t go around with a ruler. We hope common sense prevails and normally it does. In the case that got us in the newspapers, some girls came in day after day with short skirts despite being warned about it, so we wrote home to all parents before Christmas and asked them to sort it out over the holiday period. Sadly, some still didn’t listen, so we took action. As for other headteachers who send girls home in even greater numbers, or repeatedly, for wearing their skirts too short, I wouldn’t say they are wrong. In fact, I would never criticise any head for doing whatever they think is necessary to raise the bar and improve the life chances of all the children in their school.
‘No,’ says Jessica Eaton, researcher, speaker and writer in the psychology of victim blaming in sexual violence and the Founder of VictimFocus, VictimFocus Blog and The Eaton Foundation. Her book, ‘The Little Orange Book: Learning about abuse from the voice of the child’ came out this summer.
Every autumn, schools send girls home for wearing skirts that are deemed too short. On the surface, expecting children to dress smartly for school and punishing them for doing otherwise sounds reasonable enough. But actually what’s happening here is schools projecting wider sexist attitudes towards women and their bodies onto girls.
After all, this isn’t about smartness; it’s about modesty. And positioning children’s bodies as problematic or sexual in this way is concerning. And to suggest they should be sent home and denied the right to learning because they don’t look modest enough is nothing short of ridiculous. But because we live in a society where policing women’s bodies has become normalised, many of us go along with it when it happens to girls too.
It’s no coincidence that school dress codes usually contain far more rules around girls’ clothing and appearance and that there are generally no such qualms or rules around boys’ and their anatomy. During my time at school in the early noughties, we were pulled aside for wearing, God forbid, black or revealing bras under white blouses and for wearing blouses that were too shaped around our waists. We were also chastised for wearing tight black trousers that showed off our figures and if we did wear skirts, we were frequently asked to kneel on the floor to see if they touched the floor – our school’s own modesty test. In other schools, girls are blocked from school photos because of what they wear.
One of the main arguments put forward by heads is that they’re preparing students for the world of work. But (a) that’s not true - I remember having a personal row with a teacher who took me to task for not wearing my blazer one very hot July day, using that same argument that there are rules around clothes for adults at work too, but actually she was wearing a strappy top because she could. And (b) let’s not prepare our girls for a sexist workplace where we actually encourage the judging of women based on their appearance. The very fact that women in public positions are still subjected to public criticism about their clothing choices is something future generations should be taught to question, not to go along with.
Other headteachers argue that short skirts are distracting for male teachers and/or the boys. But, as I’ve written before, if you have a male teacher who’s distracted by children’s bodies, suspend them immediately. Think about it, if Mr Jones strolls into the staffroom saying, ‘I was just teaching English and Jessica came in wearing a shirt with a button undone and a skirt high up her legs and it’s making me uncomfortable,’ I’d be more concerned about him than her – she’s just there to learn English, maths or whatever the lesson is in. At Bishop of Hereford’s Bluecoat School, pupils were even told that skirts above the knee make them targets for sexual harassment – a clear case of victim blaming.
From a boy’s perspective, obviously it’s slightly different as there isn’t a power differential, but you’d still expect the school not to take the stance that girls must dress more modestly so that the boys get a good education. It’s hard to argue that publicly shaming girls and making them miss out on learning based on what they look like isn’t sexist in this scenario – it absolutely prioritises the males in that environment.
In any case, if girls’ bodies are so irresistible, why allow them to wear shorts and swimming costumes for PE? Headteachers just make themselves look silly when they essentially say, ‘Showing some thigh, even covered in thick black tights, is wrong, wrong, wrong and you must measure the amount to be no thicker than your report card at any time. Oh, except on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for sport and swimming.’
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