Hold the press! We have a breaking story about school skirts…..
Who would have thought that the wearing of school skirts would be front page news? Winston Churchill's opinion of skirts was well known, that just like a good speech, they should be "long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest". The heat-wave of June 2017 may go down in education history as the turning point which led the boys of the Isca Academy in Exeter to stage a uniform protest after their school insisted that they should wear trousers despite the heat-wave.
It was reported that as the temperature nudged and then exceeded 30C, many of the boys had asked if they could wear shorts. They were told that they could not do so under the school's uniform policy. Appeals on the grounds of gender equality went unheeded: yes, the girls were permitted to wear skirts, but the School uniform policy was very clear – boys were required to wear trousers regardless of the temperature and so shorts were not allowed, "although you could wear a school skirt if you want to" (a teacher is reported to have said)...which is of course what happened.
The next day a handful of the boys appeared at school wearing skirts and by the Thursday a full-scale rebellion was in swing, with the teenage boys borrowing school regulation skirts from sisters, friends and girlfriends. Smartly dressed, and with no rolling up of the school regulation skirts ("for once"), a gentle revolution had taken place. "Quite refreshing", "nice breeze", some of the boys commented, although one taller boy was told that his skirt had exposed too much hairy leg.
There has been much discussion about gender-neutral uniforms in recent months. Questions about girls being allowed to wear trousers have developed into discussion about gender diversity, non-binary sexuality and the restrictions of a strict male/female dress policy in schools, when it is increasingly accepted that individuals may be choosing to identify as neither.
Highgate School hit the headlines in May with their consideration of a gender-neutral uniform in response to a growing number of pupils questioning their gender identity. Other schools have embraced the issue too, such as St Paul's Girls' School, which was reported to have introduced a gender identity protocol which supports pupils who are questioning their gender identity. Gender is increasingly being described as a choice by young people, and there is increasing debate about it, not least to ensure that there is appropriate support for the welfare, good mental health and safety of pupils who are considering such issues. That debate is yet to be resolved, but in the meantime what of school uniform policy and can it be discriminatory?
In practical terms, it is unlikely that pupils will take legal action against their school in relation to gender-delineated school uniform and it is difficult (although not impossible) to establish what might be a discriminatory act or detriment by requiring pupils to dress along what we consider to be traditional gender lines, although if gender reassignment is the way of the future, a gender-neutral, mix-and-match uniform may become main-stream.
Perhaps the question for schools to ask themselves is what they see as the primary purpose of wearing a school uniform. Ensuring that pupils are dressed smartly and respectfully may in future be more important than who is wearing the trousers/shorts or skirts.
Hot off the press, there is good news for the boys of the Isca Academy, in that the Headmistress is reported to have confirmed that shorts will be part of the official school uniform next year, praising the "initiative and resourcefulness" of her pupils and the "good spirit in which they expressed their views". North of the border, they are no doubt wondering what the fuss is about. A friend in a Scottish regiment with a proud tradition of kilt wearing was delighted at the news story – "we are all for it", he said. "If this takes off we might see an increase in applications to the regiment."
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This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, July 2017