Ever since this morning’s article in The Times about some schools banning skirts in school from the beginning of the new academic year, I have been waiting with bated breath for the inevitable comment piece decrying the fact that choice has been taken away from girls, and that all girls should have the chance to wear whatever they want, however they want, to school. A matter of human rights, surely? The situation has arisen, however, because a number of schools have recognised that the interpretation of ‘appropriate length’ has become blurred and an issue of contention, and they have realised that they must act. Jonathan Oliver, Head of Wye Valley School, explained that ‘This has come about following the increasing number of girls wearing skirts of inappropriate length and style that has become extremely difficult to manage’.
Whether or not the anticipated comment piece appears will more likely have to do with whether it is displaced by stories predicting record rises in GCSE results (due out on Thursday), rather than anything else, as experience shows that someone, somewhere, is bound to make an issue of it. They would, of course, be wrong to do so: it is entirely up to schools to decide what kind of uniform they require, and it is right for children to get into the habit of doing what is expected in certain contexts. After all, we do young people no favours at all if we pretend that ‘anything will go’ in terms of dress sense once they reach the workplace.
Moreover – and more significantly, I would argue – we owe it to young people to make them very aware that how they conduct themselves in public, including how they wear their clothes, matters in the perception of the public and, ultimately, in their perception of themselves. Why are girls shortening their skirts, rolling the waistbands over and revealing their underwear to the world? The answer is simple: because they are surrounded by pictures, images, music and messages that present sexualised dressing as standard; because, too, they see their role models dressing like this, in overly sexualised ways, and they do not see or appreciate the alternative. Being ‘sexy’ is all that matters.
So … a human rights issue or not? Well, yes, but not in the way the comment writer might present it. If we don’t teach our young people not to imitate the false models they see all around them, and to have more self-esteem in their self-presentation, then we are not enabling them to be the people they can be; we are, in effect, denying them their fundamental human right to be themselves. Let’s do something about the pervasive sexualisation of society now.