Headteachers across the country are banning girls from wearing skirts in school for fear that their ever-shorter hemlines put them at risk of attack.
Parents in the Kent town of Herne Bay are the latest to receive a letter from a local secondary school warning that, because of "serious safeguarding issues", pupils will be forced to wear trousers if they continue to wear skirts more than 10cm above their knees.
The school is following the lead of a number of others across England, from Cheshire to Suffolk, that have imposed – or threatened – a ban on skirts this year, with most citing "health and safety" or "safeguarding".
In her letter, Claire Owen, the principal at Herne Bay High School, said she feared some pupils were "putting themselves at risk" and that unless skirts became longer she would institute a ban. Speaking later on a local radio station, Dr Owen added that she thought the girls were unaware that the way they were dressing could "give out the wrong message".
But Peter Bradley, the deputy director of the children's charity Kidscape, said that by suggesting skirt length is a factor in sexual attacks, schools could actually be putting girls at greater risk. He fears that such messages could give teenagers a false sense of security that wearing more "appropriate" clothing makes them safer. "Records of attacks on women and girls over the years have not followed hemlines, up or down," he said.
"To judge this as a serious safeguarding concern is questionable. Girls who wear trousers will still be potentially at risk of unwanted sexual advances. Girls who wear rolled-up skirts to look more fashionable are not inviting sexual advances. They are going through adolescence, just like their mothers and grandmothers did themselves."
In the letters to parents explaining the bans, headteachers have also said that, apart from safety fears, the girls' attitude to their skirts flouts the uniform policy, wastes the time of teachers who have to tackle uniform issues, and leads to pupils missing lessons when they are sent home to change.
Mr Bradley believes that schools need to impose uniform boundaries that instill pride and a sense of belonging, but that scaring pupils rather than empowering is the wrong way to impose authority.
"Obviously, schoolchildren need rules and boundaries to ensure they learn in a safe and structured setting, however banning girls from wearing skirts that are judged to be too short seems to be an extreme decision," Mr Bradley said. "A school that feels the need to ban skirts due to pupils not co-operating with staff requests should be more concerned about their pupils' behaviour rather than child protection concerns."
Even the national body that represents headteachers is wary of outright bans. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the NAHT, said that schools have battled for generations against teenagers wanting to express themselves through their clothes by adapting their uniforms in whatever way they can.
But he added: "It is probably better to encourage boys and girls not to make assumptions about each other based exclusively on how they dress. In any case, trousers are probably as capable as skirts of being cut and styled to suit the desired image.
"Banning any item of clothing tends to harden opinions on each side. Creating a uniform code that permits a range of choices – so people can find something in which they feel confident – is probably the best approach."