I don’t have a choice. I have to wear a skirt to school
My daughter will finish primary school in two years and we’re considering sending her to a local secondary school. There’s a slight hitch. At this school, the girls cannot wear trousers. They have to wear skirts.
While other secondary schools in the vicinity don’t have this restriction, a subsequent phone call confirmed there’s no flexibility in the policy. It wasn’t something I’d previously considered. My daughter has this choice at her primary school and I had assumed that choice would follow her to secondary.
What do skirts affect?
On the surface it may seem like a trivial deliberation, but the problem with skirts and dresses is they aren’t as practical as tracksuits or trousers.
- The common cartwheel and many sitting positions are a potential source of embarrassment, as is any other activity that requires a student to be aware of what they’re wearing and where it’s positioned.
- Another problem is with the materials encountered at school. When my daughter was younger and wore skirts, she complained how uncomfortable it was to sit down in the yard at break-time or how easily her knees grazed if she wasn’t wearing a tracksuit or trousers. When she wore a dress, the material sometimes caught on her knees causing her to stumble. This wasn’t an issue with a tracksuit or trousers either.
- The practicalities extend further to weather conditions. Ireland can be a cold place for much of the year. My daughter never goes to school in a skirt or dress when it’s miserable outside, and if I ask why, it’s because even with tights, skirts or dresses just aren’t warm enough.
I don’t remember ever caring about such things when I was at school. There was too much fun to be had in playing football, chasing and in the general mayhem of the school playground to give a moment’s thought to what I was wearing.
An international problem
Cue a search to see if others have had to deal with this. And they have.
Students at an elementary school in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward handed Nakano’s Mayor a petition showing him the majority of their class wanted to wear pants when they moved to junior high. Their wish was granted1.
North Carolina, U.S.
Things weren’t so smooth for parents of children at Charter Day School, in Leland, North Carolina, who had no joy when they raised this problem with the school’s board. Some of the girls didn’t want to wear skirts; it affected their ability to play without worrying about the same types of issues mentioned above: the embarrassments, the catching of material, the cold. The school stood firm on their policy, citing the dress code was there to ‘instil discipline’ and ‘promote a sense of pride and team spirit’2.
The parents were so unhappy they brought the matter before the Courts, going all the way to a federal judge who struck down the policy as unconstitutional3. The judge ruled the uniform policy caused girls to suffer a burden that boys do not, simply because they are female4.
Physical activity and academic performance
It’s not just daily practicalities that are affected; longer-term knock-on effects have been studied too.
ACHPER, the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, studied the effects of girls’ uniforms on physical activity. According to this report and other studies it cites, the physical restrictions imposed upon girls by skirts and dresses restricts their physical activity5. Additionally, being fitter helps children perform better academically, so forcing skirts or dresses on girls hinders both their physical and academic development. Despite these findings, most public and private schools in Australia still don’t offer girls the option to wear shorts or pants.
To bring the matter closer to home, a 2018 HSE report on ‘Tackling Childhood Obesity’ in Ireland, lists Ireland’s childhood obesity rates as high by European standards6. It reports that girls are less physically active than boys and details a greater prevalence of overweight and obese girls compared to boys in multiple age brackets—the five year olds, the seven year olds and the over eights age group. Although it doesn’t deal with why girls are less active—and no conclusions can be drawn from the report in that regard—the evidence from other countries points to this: any hindrance to physical activity in girls should be removed unless there is a good reason not to. I can’t think of such a reason.
The practicalities of negotiating daily school life should be made as easy as possible for children. In addition, there is growing evidence that physical activity leads not only to healthier bodies but healthier minds. We should be encouraging children to become more active and removing any obstacles, however trivial they may appear, in their way. An increasing number of schools are becoming more progressive in their policies regarding this. More schools should follow suit.
UPDATE: September 2019
Although this article focused on a very specific uniform policy point, broader gender issues are relevant here too. The students’ council at St Brigid’s National School in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, took one such broader view and proposed a gender neutral uniform7. The school board consulted with the parents’ association and as a result, from September (2019), any garment that’s part of the school uniform can be worn by any student, regardless of gender. More of this type of progressive thinking is needed in our schools.