“And 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.”
"I don’t want staff wasting any more time sorting out skirts,"
Dr Rowena Blencowe
'Safeguarding' is, of course, now a highly emotive word in any school and failure to address it adequately can bring Ofsted censure. So Dr Blencowe is sounding an alarm.
Her warning is echoed by another head, Sarah Pashley, of Bridlington School in East Yorkshire, who is also instituting a ban.
In an explanatory letter to parents she wrote: “To set it [the ban] in context, on one occasion when a male member of staff challenged a female student on her skirt length, she retorted, 'You shouldn’t be looking at my legs.’
“[He] was understandably uncomfortable and reported it to me immediately.”
That unease reflects the attitude of many teenage girls in their dealings with older male authority figures.
“I honestly never used to give it a second thought,” confesses the long-serving headmaster of a mixed comprehensive in the North West, “but I have realised recently that any attempt by me to tackle this issue makes them lose respect for me.”
The head – who for obvious reasons doesn’t want to be named – operates differently as a result. “I still routinely pick up boys with the wrong shoes or with their ties undone, but I make it a policy never to tackle any uniform issues with girls. I leave that entirely to female members of staff.”
It is the sort of practical approach that many secondaries are taking. “I’m all in favour of operating by common sense,” says Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST).
“We recently had a new head at one of our schools. A teacher brought a girl in to see him for wearing too short a skirt. He said, 'I’m not interested in her skirt length, I’m interested in what is going on in her brain.’ ”
Dr Rowena Blencowe (pictured) has banned skirts altogether (Photo: Newsteam)
Mrs Fraser feels making skirt length a safeguarding issue overstates the problem.
While she doesn’t advocate a free-for-all – “Our girls wear their uniforms inside and outside school and we want them to be good ambassadors for the school” – she believes that female staff members can deal with any problems. Blanket bans are not the answer.
“I was walking into my office in London today and was surrounded by smartly dressed young business women, some of whom were wearing short skirts, others tight-fitting trousers. They looked appropriate and professional. One of the challenges facing any school is how to adapt its uniform to contemporary fashion and life. We’ve been doing it for years, otherwise girls would still be wearing calf-length brown gymslips.”
Adaptation – or change – does risk a backlash. More than 1,000 parents at Bridlington School have signed a petition urging Mrs Pashley to change her mind.
Among their objections are the cost of new uniforms, the perception that girls are being forced to wear more masculine clothes, and claims that trousers will be too warm during hot weather.
So far Mrs Pashley has refused to back down. But at Plymstock School in Plymouth parent power has scored a victory. It announced earlier this month that from September all pupils, male and female, would be required to wear dark grey trousers.
“The time wasted addressing skirt issues would be better spent focusing on teaching and learning,” the school said. Mums and dads objected and now the school has suspended the new arrangements.
"The fact is that whichever way you go as a head, you will never win. You are always on the back foot once you start issuing bans."
Helen Fraser, GDST chief executive
Then there are schools that introduced a skirt ban but the policy failed. John Colet School in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, insisted on trousers for girls in 2011, but has just announced the return of a regulation pleated skirt (available only from official suppliers) as part of a wider overhaul of the uniform, including the replacement of blazers with sweatshirts.
Head teacher Christine McLintock says the change of heart is down to parental feedback.
In defending her decision at Trentham High – which has the support of “nine out of 10 parents” – Dr Blencowe argues that making trousers mandatory will have much the same effect as her earlier introduction of clip-on ties. Her staff used to spend time policing undone top buttons and ties at half-mast, but the clip-on did away with all that.
The experience of Hanson Academy in Bradford, however, indicates that such confidence in a simple solution may be misplaced. Like Trentham High, it has been struggling to push up academic standards – and has had six heads in five years.
In 2014, it banned skirts to save time wasted on uniform infringements. But shortly afterwards, it was still sending home 152 pupils (10 per cent of the total) on a single day for ignoring rules on trousers, shoes and ties. Once one avenue of teenage rebellion is closed, another opens up.
In such circumstances, it must be hard for heads to know which way to turn. Mrs Pashley estimated that she was spending £25,000 per year on staffing an isolation room for pupils breaching uniform rules. That is enough to employ another teacher. Yet still she is facing a revolt.
And dissenting parents are becoming more organised. A website, schoolskirtban.co.uk, has been established to “chart the rise of the skirt ban and offer advice on how to fight it if proposed in your school”.
It offers strategies – from mobilising the local press, lobbying the governors and insisting on full consultation, right down to getting middle-class parents involved as they are “more likely to argue and to push back”.
The Department for Education is staying out of it. A spokesman said that uniform policy was a matter for individual schools. She added that she was not aware that uniform came within the safeguarding remit.
“There is a risk,” warns Mrs Fraser of the GDST, “that schools and educationalists can get too fixated on uniform discipline. I’d take it as a bad sign that any school is making skirt length such an all-important issue.
“The fact is that whichever way you go as a head, you will never win. You are always on the back foot once you start issuing bans.”
I Am Because … Essay Finalist with Skirt! Charleston
Several weeks ago, I read about a Mother’s Day essay contest hosted by Skirt!, a Charleston area women’s magazine. The basic assignment was to answer the following: “I am the woman I am today because my mother …” I clipped the page from the magazine and put it on my desk. Of course, it was inevitably buried under a pile of papers, where I unearthed it about two days before the deadline.
Finally, the day before the deadline, a Facebook post promoting the essay contest reminded me again – I either needed to write something today or forget it. So, while waiting for Kate at her gymnastics class, I started writing about how motherhood is hard. Hard for me. Hard for own mom. Probably hard at times for you too. And, yet, we can learn from the hard times, the good times, the everyday moments. I sent off the essay and figured, if nothing else, I’d put it in a Mother’s Day card for my mom. So, imagine my surprise to learn that my essay was one of the finalists.
As a finalist, I was able to participate in a Lisette L Fashion Show at the Volvo Car Open in April, and in May, all the finalists will be recognized at a luncheon. I’m honored my own mom will be able to join me at that event on May 11. You can pick up the May issue of Skirt! to read a little of each finalist’s essay. And I’m publishing mine below:
I Am Because …
If you ask my mom, she’ll probably give you a list of all the ways she thinks she failed at motherhood. That’s the way it is when you’re a mom, isn’t it? You second guess every decision. You struggle with guilt and feelings of inadequacy. You get tunnel vision on the times you lost your temper or forgot a school function. Like my own mom, I worry daily that I’m not doing enough, that I’m not being enough for my own daughter.
I’m 40 years old and my mom probably still wonders the same thing: was I enough for my daughter?
Yes, Mom, you were enough. It’s because of you I grew into the woman I am today. It’s because of you I have a beautiful life filled with accomplishments, possibilities and love.
Mom, you may focus on the faults, but I choose to focus on the many ways you shaped me. You were an example of a single mom with two kids who went to college to become a social worker. You’ve spent years helping people through incredibly difficult situations as they overcome addictions and personal crisis.
Because of you, I recognize and appreciate strong, dedicated and caring women.
You took me to Sunday school and church. You taught me bedtime prayers and the importance of reading the Bible and listening to that still small voice that guides us in our decisions.
Because of you, I can fulfill the calling laid out for me.
Mom, you encouraged me in everything. I believed I could do anything I set my mind to and, that with hard work and determination, I could conquer the world.
Because of you, I have done just that.
You instilled in me a sense of personal confidence and a value that any man worth having was one who pursued, respected and valued me.
Because of you, I have the most incredible husband. He’s loved me unconditionally and supported me for almost 17 years.
As a grandmother, you’ve demonstrated a mother’s love and what it means to cherish and adore a precious child.
Because of you, I can pause and appreciate my role not as a caretaker who schedules swim lessons and packs lunches, but as the caretaker entrusted with raising another young woman poised to take on the world.
So, thank you, Mom, for all the big and little ways you molded me, my character and my passion. For without those promptings, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.