A UNIVERSITY professor is to challenge the right of schools to insist that female pupils must wear skirts. If the test case succeeds, no school in the country will be able to stop girls wearing trousers.
Professor Claire Hale, who teaches healthcare at Leeds University, decided to pursue legal action after making representations to the Department for Education regarding her daughter. The Schools Minister, Charles Clarke, told her he has no power to intervene, but he offered his "sympathy" and has given what she considers the "green light" for a court challenge.
For more than 30 years disputes have raged over school uniform. The great majority of state schools insist on uniform but most give girls the option of wearing either skirts or trousers.
The professor's daughter, Jo Hale, 13, who attends Whickham Comprehensive in Gateshead, is demanding the same rights as boys at the school, with her mother's backing. "Lots of us want to wear trousers and we just can't see why we're not allowed to," she said. "If you're sitting at your desk in class doing your work like you're supposed to, what difference does it make if you have trousers on? It doesn't mean you're any less intelligent or anything."
The principle of "equal rights" is most often cited by pupils who want to wear trousers. But Professor Hale believes there are other important considerations.
Earlier this year, a pupil at her daughter's school was sexually assaulted as she waited at a bus stop. A man approached from behind and put his hand up her skirt before fleeing. The police advised her parents that for her own protection she should wear trousers. Her school refused permission to do so.
"If girls aren't wearing a skirt then no one can stick their hand up it," Professor Hale said. "Trousers are harder to get off and easier to run away in. The police are always going on about the need for women to be on their guard and dress appropriately."
She also argues there is a medical case for trousers. "Some teenage girls suffer from vaginal candidiasis [thrush]. This is exacerbated by the wearing of nylon tights. Skirts are also more constricting than trousers. There are certain postures, positions and lifting activities which girls and women cannot easily perform when wearing skirts. Boys don't show their pants to the world when they bend over, so why should girls?"
Schools are well aware of the problems associated with short skirts and most, including Whickham, insist on a "respectable" length. But Professor Hale is unsympathetic. "Of course the girls wear their skirts very short, and so do some teachers - that's the fashion. The school tries to enforce longer skirts but fails miserably. If I were a male teacher these days I would certainly not have anything to do with measuring the length of a girl's skirt. If a teacher goes anywhere near my daughter with a ruler I will sue."
Lawyers suspect, however, that her best chance of winning in court stems from her claim that it costs more to dress a girl if trousers are banned. Uniforms are cheaper for boys, they argue, because trousers and socks last longer than skirts and tights, which are costly and easily torn.
In a letter to Professor Hale, Mr Clarke said the current law was unclear. "Neither the role of the governing body in adopting a school uniform, nor that of the head in enforcing it, has been tested in the courts ... It would ultimately be for the courts to decide if this is a sex discrimination issue," he wrote. "I am sympathetic to the wish that girls should be able to wear trousers. The Sex Discrimination Act provides a procedure under which complaints can be brought in the county court."
The governors of Whickham School insist that the trouser ban helps to "promote the school as a centre of excellence", and "reflects a well-ordered and high academic but caring ethos".
Mr John Lea, the headmaster, said that if Whickham was guilty of discrimination then so were hundreds of other schools
"I have not received a single complaint from any other parent. Many have said to me that if Professor Hale doesn't like it here she should choose another school. She has every right to raise the matter at the school's AGM. To be honest, I think she has become a little obsessive.''
Professor Hale is unrepentant. "Is it obsessive to seek for my daughter the same rights as women in public life? The Prime Minister's wife wears trousers to see the Queen. Margaret Beckett wore them for the opening of Parliament. Nurses wear them and teachers and lawyers. I am not opposed to school uniform. I'm not advocating jeans. Just ordinary, plain trousers - like those the boys wear."
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