Don't tell schoolgirls to dress 'modestly'. How about boys quit perving instead?

Pupils in their school uniform
Schools shouldn't tell girls to 'dress modestly' - they should educate both genders Credit: Alamy

Imagine if a company sent out a letter telling all their female staff to start wearing thick black tights. That “in the interests of modesty”, women had to cover up their legs with hosiery of no less than 40 denier.

There would be a public outcry. How dare they tell women how to dress? Why does a woman have to dress ‘modestly’ so long as she looks professional? And what’s wrong with 20 denier?

But this is exactly what has happened in a Hartlepool primary school.

"Girls, some of whom won’t have reached puberty, are being told that they must cover up their legs 'in the interests of modesty.'”

Grant Carswell of St Hild’s Church of England school recently wrote to parents telling them girls had to wear opaque black tights to make sure pupils were “properly safeguarded on their way to and from school.”

Let that sink in for a second.

Girls, most of whom won’t have reached puberty, are being told that they must cover up their legs – either with black tights (of no less than 40 denier, don’t forget) or wear trousers – all “in the interests of modesty.”

It is reminiscent of Trentham High School in Stoke-on-Trent, who this summer said that girls had to wear “businesslike” trousers and not short skirts. Headteacher Dr Rowena Blencowe explained: "It's not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it's a complete distraction.”

A screenshot of the letter from the school's website

There's nothing wrong with wanting to enforce a respectable dress code – most of us would agree it’s inappropriate for both schoolgirls and women in the workplace to wear overly revealing clothes. Those in charge should have necessary regulations in place and enforce them only in extreme cases.

But what these schools are doing is focusing on female sexuality. The language gives it away. They are concerned about ‘safeguarding’, about how girls are ‘distracting’ male staff and boys, and how they are being ‘immodest’. Imagine if they asked boys to stop 'perving' instead.

"The ‘you were asking for it’ culture – where female victims are told they’re at fault for ‘encouraging’ sexual crimes by wearing revealing clothes or behaving in a certain way – starts here."

The problem all comes when girls hit puberty and there's a mad scramble to make them hide their sexuality. The onus is all on them to change their behaviour, rather than on educating both sexes on appropriate behaviour.

Instead of using the opportunity to tell boys and girls about sexual harassment, personal boundaries and respect, these schools seem to have only imposed restrictions on the girls - some as young as five.

It's one the earliest examples of girls being told their sexuality and bodies are to blame for men being 'distracted'.

The ‘you were asking for it’ culture – where sexual assault victims are told they’re at fault for wearing revealing clothes or behaving in a certain way – starts here.

This kind of thinking stays with girls for the rest of their lives. Boys grow up thinking that when girls show too much flesh, it’s somehow ‘wrong’ and they should cover up to be ‘modest’. Girls grow up feeling shame around what they wear, and if ever they’re sexually harassed, wonder if they're to blame.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society agees:

“It’s fine for schools to have a uniform and a dress code but let’s see them apply it equally to boys and girls. Modesty and safeguarding don’t come into it. What they should be focusing on is opening up a world of opportunity to their young women, not controlling what they wear.”

None of this is new. It has been happening for generations, but as girls hit puberty earlier, they’re being subjected to this kind of thinking at even younger ages. It’s something I experienced when I started secondary school aged 11.

Much of the criticism was fair enough – when we rolled up our skirts, we expected to be told to take them down to the regulatory ‘two inches about the knee’ length.

But what wasn’t OK was being told to make sure our bras weren’t visible through our pale green shirts – a near-impossible feat, so this was the material – or told to cross our legs so we didn’t show our underwear in our skirts.

In my primary school we were even chastised for wearing knickers underneath our leotards during gymnastics.

It was embarrassing. We didn’t feel like we’d done anything wrong, but we were being told off – our only crime seemed to be growing boobs and having a vagina. Whenever we inadvertently revealed our developing bodies, we were accused of being ‘immodest’ and provocative.

"We didn’t feel like we’d done anything wrong but we were being told off – our only crime seemed to be having growing boobs and a vagina."

We had no idea we were doing anything wrong. It brought about feelings of shame, of guilt, and of humiliation.

The boys in the neighbouring school escaped this. They were criticised for not looking smart, or having inappropriate hair styles, yes. But they were never chastised for tempting us girls with their adolescent bodies .

If schools want to ensure that the next generation grow up without damaging stereotypes, they need to stop demanding that girls start covering up at the first sign of puberty - or before.

Instead they need to be respectful - a lesson they can pass on to their pupils, of both sexes.