Children are decked out in uniforms at a school in London as the new school… (Luke MacGregor, Reuters )
Reporting from Nailsea, England — Thanks to the movies, Americans who have never set foot in this country have a fair idea of what British schoolchildren look like.
From Harry Potter and his pals at Hogwarts to the glowing-eyed demon spawn of the '60s horror classic "Village of the Damned," the image is one of boys and girls neatly turned out in their matching school sweaters, trousers, skirts and ties.
But for some of today's non-magical, non-mutant students, a key piece of that picture is missing. Visit Nailsea School here in southwestern England, and about the only skirts you'll see are those on teachers; most of the girls on campus are required to dress like the boys, in standard-issue trousers, after the school amended its uniform policy this year to become a skirt-free zone.
It's a new approach to an old problem: the fight against rising hemlines, a perennial battle that probably brings back embarrassing memories for the mothers of many of today's schoolgirls.
Nailsea belongs to a small but growing number of schools in Britain that have given up chastising students for hemline creep and instead resorted to what one commentator calls "the nuclear option": blacklisting skirts altogether.
Sharna Griffin isn't happy about it.
Sure, some of her peers have cast modesty a bit too far to one side. "It is a bit of a problem, because we don't want to see their knickers. Walking up the stairs, you don't want to see whatever the girl's wearing under the skirt," the 15-year-old said.
But she thinks the ban smacks of collective punishment to students who obey the rules and don't let their regulation black skirts migrate much above the knee or disappear under their V-neck sweaters.
"I've never really been one to follow the crowd," Sharna said. "I don't think it's fair that the girls whose skirts are the correct length will not be able to wear them."
On the first two days of school, she showed up in a skirt in protest, only to be sent home early.
The decision at Nailsea and other schools to forbid skirts springs from the exasperation of administrators and teachers, who were tired of spending precious time forcing students to correct wardrobe malfunctions instead of getting them to ponder the Norman Conquest.
Girls who might've kissed their parents goodbye in the morning looking like paragons of virtue were arriving on campus with their skirts bunched up at the waist and drastically shortened. One headmaster in western England complained that his female students wore skirts that were "almost like belts," while a headmaster in a Scottish border town warned that the girls' increasingly revealing attire risked encouraging "inappropriate thoughts" among the boys.
Better to establish an environment that focuses attention on learning, not legs, than to maintain the status quo for the sake of tradition, educators say.
In general, there is little debate in this country over obliging children to wear uniforms to school, unlike in the United States, where the matter often becomes the subject of a fierce argument over civil liberties and freedom of expression.
Much of the relaxed attitude here may simply be a function of how long school uniforms have been a fixture on the British cultural and academic landscape.
By some accounts, the world's first school uniform debuted in England about 450 years ago at Christ's Hospital, a school for needy boys. Pupils at the now-private (and expensive) institution still deck themselves out much as they did in Tudor times, in dark blue overcoats, breeches for boys, pleated skirts for girls, white neckerchiefs, yellow socks and leather belts.
Although they resemble young seminarians, students voted overwhelmingly last year to keep their distinctive outfits rather than adopt any "modern" innovations.
Disputes over uniforms in Britain therefore have more to do with their specifications, not their existence. For campuses that have nixed skirts, grumbling has mainly come from parents and girls who want to have a choice between trousers and skirts, not scrap regulations altogether.
Educators say combating the rise of hemlines isn't about prudery but preventing the sexualization of children at ever-younger ages.
At publicly funded Nailsea School, where girls previously could choose between skirts and trousers, headmaster David New created a stir two years ago by banning trousers put out by a label called Miss Sexy.
"They were very low, hipster-style, very tight trousers. Staff were becoming embarrassed by seeing too much of the girls instead of the uniform," said New, who supervises 1,200 students in this commuter town outside the city of Bristol.
During the last school year, campus officials warned that skirts faced the chop as well for all 11- to 16-year-old girls if they couldn't manage to keep them at the specified length of just above the knee or lower. (Older girls in the school's "sixth form," the college-prep division, are exempt from wearing uniforms.)
When things didn't improve, school officials decided in May to make good on their threat. The new policy came into effect at the beginning of the new school year this month.
"I suspect that, teenagers being teenagers, there will be a new uniform violation that becomes the habit," New said resignedly. "That was true when I was at school, and I'm sure it was true when my father was at school."
Still, an outright ban on skirts seemed the best option.
"We didn't want to waste any more time on it," New said. "It just means that teachers can concentrate on what's important in education."
Even if the lesson turns out to be about history repeating itself.
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