Don't skirt the issue of inappropriate attire

Uniform can be a battleground as hemlines rise and tempers flare, but we must ensure pupils understand the impact of their choices

What better way to keep a lid on burgeoning sexuality than by covering school-age girls in knee-length pleated skirts and baggy jumpers? As this appears to be the thinking behind many a school uniform, you can hardly blame girls for wanting to prove that they have an attractive shape under all that maroon or navy blue. But in the never-ending battle between teachers and hemlines, "too short" seems to be getting even shorter.

At my school, girls wear polo shirts and choose between shorts or skirts. The required length is mid-thigh. With such a relaxed policy and a skirt length already guaranteed to get a nun twitching, you'd think there would be no need to push the hemline any higher. You would be wrong.

Now that the summer is ending here in Australia, I'm glad I no longer have to witness girls awkwardly gripping the edge of their skirts for fear that a gust of wind might reveal their knickers, or encounter those who have blurred the lines between school and beach and are sporting shorts that would be better suited to a morning's sunbathing.

Are music videos responsible for this no-holds-barred baring of flesh? Do we have St Trinian's to thank for sexing up school uniforms? It's difficult to say, but we do know that girls imitate the images of women they see around them. They do this to impress their friends and stick it to us teachers, but also to make a grab at adulthood.

Unfortunately, many of them are unprepared for the backlash. Girls who expose a lot of leg are labelled with terms such as "trashy" and "slutty". They are shown, on the one hand, that wearing revealing clothes and being sexy is empowering. They are told, on the other, that girls who do this are worthless.

Our role as teachers is to support and guide young people as they make the transition to adulthood and part of this is helping them to make informed decisions about their choice of clothing. We cannot blindly enforce school rules by flatly condemning their decisions (as hard as this may be sometimes). Our role is not to shame or embarrass them and certainly not to judge them. As the weather warms up in the northern hemisphere, here are a few tips for uniform management:

Choose the right person for the job

This is a difficult task for male teachers to take on, simply because the discussion can be awkward for both parties, although I know a few who do it really well. It is usually the role of a year coordinator or form teacher, so make sure you are comfortable before tackling the topic.

Discuss intentions and outcomes

Try asking the wearer what it was she wanted to achieve with her short skirt - what the "intended outcomes" were. The most common response is that she wanted to look cool, but girls will also say that they hate wearing uniform, that they think they have nice legs, it's too hot and so on.

Next, you can discuss some of the consequences of wearing a short skirt that perhaps the student wasn't aware of - the "unintended outcomes", if you will.

Explain that these might be issues such as accidentally flashing her knickers (no one wants to do that), embarrassing male teachers, making boys feel uncomfortable and alienating certain groups of girls.

Agree on what is appropriate

The word "appropriate" is often overused in schools but it is relevant here. You can discuss wht people wear to work, to a party and to the beach, and ask the student what is suitable in each instance and why.

Offer alternatives

Have a spare skirt or pair of shorts handy, preferably from the lost property pile.

Avoid shame

Words such as "ho", "skank" or "slut" have no place in the discussion of short shorts or skirts. It is crucial, as teachers, that we actively discourage these offensive terms. A young girl should not be judged negatively on the clothes she wears and this message needs to be reinforced with boys and girls. The focus should always be on what is appropriate for school.

Girls have been hitching up their skirts for decades and, as far as I know, exam results are not linked to the length of your hemline. We would prefer not to see bum-skimming skirts, but we have to remember that the wearer may be unaware of all the implications of her choice. We must help her to understand.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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