Are school uniforms too short?

SKIRTING THE ISSUE: Trouser options have been introduced at some New Zealand high schools, but most girls still opt for skirts.
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SKIRTING THE ISSUE: Trouser options have been introduced at some New Zealand high schools, but most girls still opt for skirts.

Secondary school skirts – too short, too long or just right?

Around New Zealand you'll see a full range – winter kilts that drag on the ground, summer dresses below the knee, and skirts that are mid-thigh or even higher.

In Britain, skirts that are mid-thigh or higher have been causing angst; so much so that some schools have banned skirts altogether and made trousers compulsory.

This issue attracted international attention, with the Los Angeles Times reporting on schools such as Nailsea, in southwestern England, which banned skirts after pupils struggled to keep their skirts at the specified length of just above the knee or lower.

An outright ban of skirts seemed the best option, headmaster David New was reported as saying. "We didn't want to waste any more time on it. It [now] means that teachers can concentrate on what's important in education."

The paper also reported that one headmaster in western England complained that his female students wore skirts that were "almost like belts". It said educators argued that combating rising hemlines wasn't about prudery but preventing the sexualisation of children at ever-younger ages.

In New Zealand, there appears to be considerably less anxiety about the length of skirts, although perhaps that reflects a generally high compliance with school regulations.

School rules vary, but are well advertised on school websites and in material for new pupils and parents.

There are rules about length of summer and winter skirts, and several schools have trousers as a uniform option for girls.

With summer skirts, there's a wide range of lengths stipulated. In Christchurch, Cashmere High School says they shouldn't be shorter than 5cm above the knee when kneeling; Burnside High School says 10cm above the knee. Middleton Grange specifies below the knee; and Christchurch Girls' High says dresses and skirts should be at mid-calf.

Middleton Grange is one school that concedes concern. Ruth Velluppillai, head of the school's senior college, says the senior skirt had been changed to address the problem of skirts getting too short.

"We are concerned for the girls' modesty," she says. "School uniform is intended to be practical rather than a fashion item. We want to protect their dignity and keep them safe. We also believe it is respectful to our male pupils to have our girls attired modestly. Some pupils do have issues with following the guidelines and roll their skirts or hem them up."

She says the school isn't considering trousers as an option, or as a compulsory alternative to skirts, but "I cannot categorically state that the school would `never' consider this at some point down the line".

Mairehau High School deputy principal Mark Bell, on the other hand, says that his school encounters very few problems with uniforms, despite there being no strict rules. "Mini mini-skirts" aren't allowed, but otherwise the school has a mix of skirt lengths. If a pupil does insist on consistently wearing a skirt that is deemed too short, they are encouraged to get a more suitable skirt from the school uniform shop.

Trousers are part of the uniform choice for girls, but only a handful take up the option. As for making them compulsory, "we would never do that", says Bell.

At Riccarton High School, summer skirts are supposed to be to the knee. Christine Kokay, Riccarton's deputy principal – student support, says there's usually a group of girls who like to push that boundary on skirt lengths. But in a co-ed school, she says, it is important for girls to have their skirts at a reasonable length.

Part of the problem, she concedes, is that "girls do grow". Trousers are a uniform option, but it is rare for female students at Riccarton to wear them.

Aranui High and Lincoln High also offer trousers as part of their school uniform for girls, but report that virtually no-one wears them. Neither school said they had concerns about the length of skirts of their pupils.

At Burnside High School, technology teacher Lauren Holroyd is on the uniform committee. She says that a couple of years ago the school, at the request of students, investigated the option of trousers. The student request was mainly focused on the issue of warmth. But when the pupils saw how the trousers looked with a jersey and a white shirt, combined with the trousers not seeming any warmer than a kilt, the idea was dropped.

Carolyn Rhodes, manager of Mainland Uniforms, which supplies numerous schools, says trousers are on the uniform list for several schools but are not popular anywhere. Trousers are different and therefore not popular with teens who care a lot about what their friends are wearing.

Only about 1 per cent of female school students buy trousers, she says.

All it would take to turn the trend around would be a group of about 10 popular girls. If they started wearing trousers, then others would probably follow. But until that happens, Rhodes expects sales of trousers to stay sluggish.

In Rhodes' view, it's not short skirts that cause problems; it's the long ones. She says she regularly deals with school girls who want their kilts to touch the ground. She tells them that schools mostly stipulate that the hem of the kilt should be at least 20cm from the ground.

Rhodes points out that when the kilts are too long, they get grubby, wet and smelly. "But you can't tell teenagers these things, can you."

The Press