Updated: Apr 1
As a petition set up by pupils at Wirral Grammar School for Girls strides past 11’000 signatures, we look at just some of the reasons why banning girls from wearing trousers as part of their school uniform is outdated, unpopular and hinders learning.
When I was in my first year of high school (back in The Day of 1990), I started a petition against fox hunting and worked my way around a few classes to get a massive 73 signatures. I was so pleased, and continue to tell myself it was this achievement that led to the ban… 15 years later. I have so much respect for the pupils at WGSFG (Wirral Grammar School for Girls), who have come together and started a petition challenging a rule at their school that according to the school's own website is not negotiable. These pupils rightly believe otherwise.
I’m going to skip right past the debate on whether schools should have a uniform policy or not, and go straight to the problem these girls have found themselves in. They aren’t permitted to wear trousers as part of the schools uniform policy, but must wear what is described as a navy back-vent knee length skirt instead. The skirt is poly-blend (no elastane) with back zip and even to untrained eyes looks restrictive and outdated. I'm not talking about the skirts being unfashionable, but that the design and A-Line style restricts movement. Girls are therefore forced to conduct themselves in a particular way. They perch, rather than sit; knees together rather than relaxed apart; awkward rather than encouraging full movement of the legs. How do you think active boys would fair in this skirt? Pretty much the same as active girls.
So what other issues do girls face with a skirts-only school policy?
Weather. Yes, our country is not known for its tropical climate, and even the Romans gave up and went home after a few damp squib summers (sort of...) but school uniforms do need to be practical and comfortable for all types of weather, both inside and outside school. You can't slide on a pair of waterproof trousers or those nifty snow pants over a skirt. Trousers offer more cover, and more protection from the elements. Fact.
Trousers are just more practical. There's a reason why trousers became popular amongst women during the Second World War, and acceptable thereafter. The war gave women the opportunity to step into jobs previously only open to men (who were off fighting) and women were motivated to join the war effort. They worked in munition factories, built aeroplanes, tilled the land and drove trucks for the army (like my wonderful 96 year old neighbour Veronica, who loves telling me how she won the war - only 15 at the time). They had to wear trousers because it was practical and comfortable to do so, so many did.
Today, women can choose to wear skirts or dresses, but for many careers (and just massive swathes of life in general) they are not practical.
But don't take my word for it... From top left to bottom right: NHS workers, Firefighters, RAF pilots, England Cricketers, a Farm Vet and Firearms Officers
"The question is not so much 'should women wear trousers', the answer obviously being yes, but 'when, where and how'. You can't fight an incendiary in confidence in clothes that flutter, or even sleep decently in a shelter in a skirt." Picture Post, November 1941
Scuffed knees and chaffed thighs. Wow, the difference a piece of trouser fabric can make to knees when you fall over. I’m not saying high school attracts the same level of play as primary, but active girls may you know, run and move. Plus for pupils who suffer from eczema and other skin conditions, tights are a major no no. For all pupils chaffing between the thighs can be uncomfortable at best, and painful at worst - particularly if you also have to walk to school as well. Thighs rub when you walk, meaning skirts with socks aren't necessarily the summer time party of breezy legs you think they are. Again, an unpleasant experience boys will not experience in trousers or shorts.
Freedom of movement. Some skirt designs are massively restrictive, particularly straight/pencil skirts, and even ones with a bit more flip can make the wearer conscious of flashing their pants. I’m not proclaiming the virtues of modesty here, but a lot of girls feel pretty self-conscious about this, and I for one (even now) constantly pull at my skirt hem to make sure nothing has ridden up, or worse, got caught in my knickers after a trip to the bog.
"Girls, including my young correspondent, should be able to run, climb, jump without any concerns about hypothermia or their modesty. Lord knows enough of them will spend much of their adult lives suffering for outdated ideas of femininity." Hadley Freeman, The Guardian
It's just not me. Some girls are just not going to feel right in skirts - regardless of how the skirt fits or feels to the skin. As a teen girl, I would have been horrified at the thought of being made to wear a skirt, every day, to school. At 13 I chopped off all my hair and felt most me in a pair of army combats and a loose t-shirt. There are going to be pupils who are wondering about their identity, their sense of self - and how they present themselves, and clothes will be a big part of that expression. Forcing someone to wear a skirt who really doesn't want to could be extremely harmful.
Up-skirting. No way should girls alter their behaviour or how they dress because of criminal behaviour, but as the Wirral girls rightly state “trousers might help girls to feel less vulnerable.” This is sadly the position many school girls find themselves in and up-skirting is a deeply nasty crime that can land the perpetrator in jail for a 2 year stretch. For more information or advice on up-skirting, please click here.
Cycling to school. The Department for Education says that schools and colleges should “encourage parents, staff and pupils to walk or cycle to school where it is safe and appropriate to do so” but how are you encouraging girls to cycle if they have to wear a knee length A-line skirt? Yes, it can be done - but trousers are just better. For more information on government projects to get more kids cycling to school please click here.
Ventilation in classrooms. This one may not have longevity, but who knows… During the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have had to look at new ways of working, including increased ventilation in classrooms. In October 2020, the Department for Education issued guidance stating schools should "consider allowing pupils to wear additional items of clothing.” Like, a pair of trousers say?
Neuro divergence. For children with sensory issues or medical conditions, particularly Autism or ADHD, a choice of uniform types is imperative, and tights, exposed seams and certain fabrics can cause great discomfort. Again, a choice within the uniform code is really important, allowing children to focus on their education instead of fighting discomfort. Click here to view The Good Schools Guide's suggestions for sensory sensitive school uniform.
Preparation for the real world. Women in all walks of life wear trousers, including teachers. It is sex discrimination to force female staff to dress differently to their male counterparts if the dress code is unequal and favours men. It is important to recognise this is something that will effect more women than men, as the UK Government Equalities Office notes:
"It is best to avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements, for example the requirement to wear high heels. Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful."
So what is the benefit of making girls wear skirts? Does it not expose them to a form of sexism in their teens that the UK Equalities Office have already recognised is a problem for working women? Can schools justify banning trousers under the law? Does it make them study better? Being comfortable means children can focus on learning.
Ban skirts. No, we do not advocate this - but if you give girls the choice of trousers or skirts then you allow them to make practical decisions about how to dress on any given school day. This is a really important part of how we prepare ourselves for the day ahead.
Stop stereotyping. The most hair pulling exercise when putting together this list has been finding a title image of a girl in school uniform trousers. Nearly all the image libraries offer the archetypal illusion of school life, the boy in trousers and the girl in skirt with knee high socks. Does this reflect reality? Or is this just another way society stereotypes girls and boys? The school girl image is also weighted in years of extremely damaging sexualisation - just google "school girl" and you'll see what I mean.
Symbolic. We've all heard the phrase "who wear's the trousers in your relationship?" and it means who is in charge. Its a pretty damning statement right? Because it relates to a time in this country when men were in charge of everything. Until 100 years ago women couldn't vote, couldn't own property under the same terms as men, were expected to be accompanied by a man in public, couldn't have a bank account in their own name, become lawyers or serve on a jury. You also couldn't wear trousers without controversy - and in France and the US, faced imprisonment for doing so. In the UK we've come a long way, but insisting girls can't wear trousers is wholly outdated and sends pupils a potentially harmful message.
Listen to pupils. For 39 weeks of the year (195 days) these kids have to wear school uniform. Schools and board of governors (responsible for implementing uniform policies) must listen to pupils, because what children wear to school should not be a distraction from learning. According to the 2020 Girl Guiding Attitudes survey, 73% of girls agreed that they want “women leaders not to be judged on their appearance and younger people to be involved in decision making.” Lets make that happen.
Sex discrimination. If girls are treated less favourably than boys, then that it is sex discrimination. What the law is less clear on is how you apply this to same-sex schools - where everyone will follow the exact same uniform policy. In mixed-sex schools, you can challenge a uniform policy that treats girls less favourably for denying the choice of trousers their male peers enjoy.
“The high court has the power to order a school to allow girls to wear trousers and also makes clear to all schools that preventing girls from wearing trousers is discriminatory.” Anna Macey (Barrister practising Discrimination and Education Law)
For same-sex schools however, you could make a comparison to other same-sex schools in the area, for example in the case on the Wirral, the boys school - I'm sure by complete coincidence, named Wirral Grammar School for Boys - is referred to by parents and pupils at the girls school as next door. Plus, if you live on the Wirral and have one of the Grammar schools in mind for your offspring, then you will potentially face higher uniform costs (more on this below) and your child will face the above issues with skirts - simply for being born a girl.
Cost. At Wirral Grammar School for Boys, plain black trousers can be bought (in any size or length) at £10 each via the schools uniform shop, and are to be worn with black socks. For the girls at Wirral Grammar School, the skirts must be knee length and Navy blue back-vent, bought for £13 or £16.95 (dependant on size) via the school, or between £16.95 and £18.95 with Wirral Uniforms Shop. That's per skirt. The girls also need white ankle socks in the summer, and thick tights in the winter - something that research on the costs of school uniforms seems to have ignored thus far. If parents have to buy socks AND tights, then they are already at a disadvantage to parents of boys, not to mention that the widespread stereotypical girls school shoe is open over the foot, meaning those white ankle socks aren't going to stay white for very long.
Government advice clearly states that cost considerations are “high priority” when administering a school uniform policy, and earlier this month MP's discussed introducing legislation to help bring the costs of school uniform down. Some of the ways this can be achieved are by keeping branded uniform to a minimum and ensuring parents have access to uniform at competitive prices - such as those offered by the major supermarket chains. So, what is easier to find on the high street or in a UK supermarket? Plain black trousers or a knee length navy back-vent skirt?
Very few people support a ban on girls wearing trousers. In a 2018 YouGov poll on school uniform, 80% of respondents agreed that girls should be able to wear trousers, and according to our own poll, 95%* believed there should be a government backed ban to prevent schools telling girls they can’t wear trousers. Here are what some completely random people said in support of the Wirral girls.
The campaigning will not stop. We’ve been hearing from hundreds of people, both former pupils at Wirral Grammar School for Girls and others from across the country, who fought for the right to wear trousers to school - going back to the 1970’s. There is a reason this keeps coming up year after year, decade after decade. The idea that girls aren't permitted to wear trousers as part of their official school uniform is wrong. That’s it, and that is why so many people are coming out to support the girls petition.
The girls at WGSFG should be lauded for not only having the guts to tell their school "I'm not ok with this" but starting a conversation that could very well lead to a change for all school girls in a similar position. People are talking about this and offering their support because their request is reasonable, their goal is manageable and their logic is absolutely sound. Schools must listen to pupils, they must give them the opportunities to make decisions and lead, to talk about what effects them and how to make their world a better place. That is the sort of education these girls deserve.
To sign the petition set up by the Wirral Girls Trousers Campaign click here
If you would to raise this issue with your local MP, you can find their details by clicking here
Find out more about why we advocate a unisex school uniform policy here
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This post is dedicated to the fantastic pupils and parents at Wirral Grammar School for Girls, who have shown great spirit coming together to fight for what they believe is right, and will make a positive change for every pupil at their school and beyond.
*Poll via twitter @letclothesbe 515 replies (screengrab)