The long and the skirt of it...

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Piercings? Trousers for girls? Platform shoes? Janet Prescott guides governors through the school uniform minefield

DECIDING school uniform policy was probably one of governors' less onerous responsibilities - until this February, when a case backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission hit the headlines.

Yorkshire parent Professor Claire Hales challenged the uniform policy at her daughter Jo's school, Whickham comprehensive, in Gateshead, which barred girls from wearing trousers. Jo had complained that she was cold in winter.

The potential costs of the case forced the school to settle out of court, and its revised dress code allows boys to wear skirts.

There is anecdotal evidence that the case has forced other heads to acquiesce to demands for girls to wear trousers. But because it didn't make it to court, it sets no legal precedents.

What it does do is highlight the uncertainty over whether a school can turn a child away if they are not conforming.

Many governing bodies have made school uniform part of the home-school agreement. It is also an integral part of the behaviour policy of many schools, with a sanction of short-term exclusion in extreme cases. Most governing bodies, however, would exclude only if the uniform issue were allied to other discipline issues.

The equal opportunities question hinges on whether a pupil of either sex is disadvantaged by dress rules. But, as Hilary Slater of the commission explains, it is more complicated than that.

She says: "It is not just a matter of enforcing one rule for the girls and one for boys. Case law has said that different codes can be imposed for men and women as long as they are not discriminatory. In the case of Jo Hale, the argument was that by refusing girls the right to wear trousers, they were being denied the right to wear what is now conventional dress for men and women.

"Complications also arise as to what constitutes discrimination. Some employment tribunals have set the pace. Recently a man was refused ajob because he had long hair, even though this was neatly tied up. He won the case."

Governing bodies need to make sure that uniform does not put one sex at a disadvantage - whether that be cold legs in the winter, length of hair, piercing, tattoos or jewellery. There may also be religious or cultural reasons for girls wanting to wear trousers andor headscarves.

Uniform in state schools has boomed in the last 20 years, and parental pressure has been a key factor, but another cause might also be the perception that a formal uniform is associated with academic excellence. Bob May, head of Mayfield infant and nursery school in Southampton, reluctantly bowed to parental demand for uniforms a few years ago.

He says: "Looking the same does produce an expectation of corporate behaviour, but it does not necessarily mean immaculate behaviour.

"My feeling is that individuality is something to be celebrated. But parents were almost unanimous in wanting it. The main motivation was practical - nice clothes were getting worn out - and it is better to have a rough-and-ready school uniform and avoid morning conflicts."

Ninety per cent of the school's pupils are from Asian backgrounds, and there is a uniform option for shalwar kameez in the school colours of dark green and white. About l0 to l5 per cent of children wear traditional dress.

Ilkley grammar in West Yorkshire is introducing a more prescriptive uniform next September. Governors have decided that pupils to Year 11 will wear white shirts, ties, kilts, trousers and blazers, This will mean less conflict, not more, says deputy head Maureeen Shackleton.

"Teenage girls, in particular, face peer pressure on length of skirt, jewellery and inappropriate accessories. We want to take away the element of negotiation. Parents, governors and pupils have been consulted, and staff were unanimous in their welcome for the new code of dress.

"Uniform is a distraction. Now everyone can concentrate on standards and the school ethos."

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