Two pairs of nylon tights are not enough to protect 14-year-old Jo Hale from the winter cold in the schoolyard, says her mother, Claire, a professor in healthcare studies at Leeds University. Trousers would be warmer and cheaper, she has told governors at Whickham Comprehensive in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.
After they rejected her appeals to allow girls to wear trousers instead of the uniform skirt, she decided to take legal action under the Sex Discrimination Act. Males and females are allowed different dress codes under the Act, but only if it does not disadvantage either sex.
Yesterday, the commission said it was supporting the case "to clarify case law". A spokeswoman said: "This is 1999 and a lot of women are allowed to wear trousers to work. Why shouldn't a child be allowed to wear trousers to school? We want to ... get clarification on the reasons why girls should not be allowed to wear trousers and what this means about the stereotyped assumptions about girls." The commission was writing to the Department for Education and Employment and to the school, outlining why it was supporting the case.
Ms Hale, 47, believes girls are disadvantaged by skirts because they offer less freedom of movement, less protection against assault and are more expensive for parents. The decision to proceed was a joint one between herself and her daughter, she said. "I think it is important for girls of that age to realise that they can do something. I do not think that teenage girls should be sitting down and saying, `These are the rules and they must always be like this - we can do nothing about them."
Peter Maughan, a parent governor and Gateshead councillor, said: "I am obviously disappointed by the decision of the EOC .... Other parents are irritated that Mrs Hale is pursuing this case when it was she who sought out the school for her daughter and was fully aware of the dress code."