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Once more unto the breeches

A university professor is going to court because her daughter is not allowed to wear trousers to school. Barry Hugill reports

A LEEDS University professor is to challenge in court the age-old right of schools to insist girls wear skirts. If she wins, schools will no longer be able to impose a uniform code prohibiting trousers.

Professor Claire Hale, who teaches healthcare studies at Leeds University, decided on legal action after taking her case to the Department for Education and Employment. Schools minister Charles Clarke told her he had no power to act. But in a letter to her he gave what she considers the green light for a court challenge.

"Neither the role of the governing body in adopting a school uniform policy, nor that of the head in enforcing it, has been tested in the courts ... It is for schools to decide whether trousers for girls should form part of a school uniform taking into account their responsibilities under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It would ultimately be for the courts to decide if this is a sex discrimination issue," he wrote.

Mr Clarke added: "I am sympathetic to the wish that girls should be able to wear trousers. However, I believe that a disagreement over school uniform is best dealt with at local level. The Sex Discrimination Act provides a procedure under which complaints can be brought in the county court." No date has yet been set Jo Hale, 13, attends Whickham comprehensive, Gateshead. She says girls should have the same rights as boys at the school. "Lots of us want to wear trousers and can't see why we're not allowed to. If you're sitting at your desk 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." In April, Jo and a friend attended the Government's women's unit road show in Newcastle (the unit is the responsibility of the two ministers for women, Tessa Jowell and Baroness Jay). They spoke to Ms Jowell, who has promised to raise the matter with Education Secretary David Blunkett.

Historically parents and pupils objecting to trouser bans have done so on grounds of unfairness. If boys can wear them, why can't girls? Professor Hale believes this argument to be valid but believes other issues are involved.

"The Prime Minister's wife wears them to see the Queen, and Margaret Beckett wore them for the opening of Parliament. Of course it is a straight issue of equality but there are other factors. We live in Tyneside where it is cold most of the year. Uniform is cheaper for boys because trousers and socks last last longer than skirts and tights. Tights are expensive and easily torn.

"Some teenage girls suffer from vaginal candidiasis (thrush). This is exacerbated by the wearing of nylon tights. Skirts are also more constricting than trousers. Boys don't show their pants to the world when they bend over so why should girls?" The Professor believes wearing trousers offers protection against sexual assault - a view she says is endorsed by her local police. "If girls are not wearing a skirt then no one can stick their hand up it. 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 said.

The school reserves the right to measure the length of pupils' skirts but Professor Hale has warned the head she will bring assault charges against any teacher "who places a ruler anywhere near my daughter".

"Of course the girls wear their skirts very short, that's the fashion, and so do some of the teachers. 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," she said.

The governors of Whickham school insist the uniform policy ensures a "well ordered and high academic but caring ethos" that minimises "conflicts between parent and child or staff and pupil".

Headteacher John Lea said he was sorry Professor Hale was unhappy with the policy. "I have not received a single complaint from any other parent. Many have said that if she doesn't like it here she should go to another school. But she has every right to raise it at the school's AGM later in the year. To be honest I think she has become a bit obsessive."

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