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JENNI MURRAY: Why I believe we must now ban skirts in schools, once and for all


I was going through my wardrobe recently, wondering whether it was too soon to wear outfits more suited to spring, when I realised I own hardly any skirts. I don’t remember the last time I wore one, instead opting for the comfort and ease of trousers, jeans or leggings. No more hunting for a pair of tights without ladders that actually fit.

How did this fashion-conscious girl of the 1960s, the era of the miniskirt, no less, turn so vehemently against this accepted female form of dress?

The answer is growing up, learning about feminism and understanding the appalling extent of sexual harassment.

And nowhere are these issues more important than in schools, where the skirt still remains regulation uniform. I remember only too well how the insistence we wore them meant we were continually subjected to boys’ leering and lewd comments.

The skirt has restricted us in so many ways, limiting physical activity, says Jenni Murray

The skirt has restricted us in so many ways, limiting physical activity, says Jenni Murray

You couldn’t even escape in a single-sex school, as my secondary was. Boys from the boys’ grammar would peer over hedges to get a good view of us playing hockey, netball or tennis and the comments would come over loud and clear. ‘Cor, I fancy that — shame about the big grey knickers, but what’s inside them looks alright.’

It was the same as we all waited for the bus together. None of us dared to sit on the top deck; we knew they’d be looking up our skirts as we climbed the stairs.

Looking back, the skirt restricted us in so many ways. Who’d have done a cartwheel in the playground or even ridden a bike to school? We would never do any physical activity that meant boys might see our knickers.

Sadly, it seems that all these years later, a new generation of girls suffers the same fate — worse, even, with the ability to snap upskirt photos and forward them on to pals.

That’s why I believe we should ban the skirt in schools once and for all. I want every girl and boy to attend lessons wearing trousers and, for any sport, shorts. We need absolute equality between boys and girls in their uniforms.

New research by the University of Cambridge confirms my suspicions that school uniforms hold girls back. Forced by school rules to wear skirts, they find their freedom to take part in physical activity severely restricted.

Looking at the physical activity levels of more than a million young people aged five to 17 in 135 countries and regions, including England, Scotland and Wales, researchers found pupils with mandatory school uniform — particularly primary school-aged girls — were less likely to do the 60 minutes a day of physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Senior author of the research, Dr Esther van Sluijs, said: ‘Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problem.’

This backs up previous studies that found wearing gender-specific school uniforms reminded children they are a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ rather than a ‘pupil’. In the context of gender and education, this could reinforce beliefs such as ‘girls don’t play football’ or ‘boys don’t read books’.

The fact is, we’ve known all this for a very long time. At school in the 1950s and 1960s, the impact on girls’ confidence to be assertive and take whatever they wanted or needed from education, both intellectual and physical, was severely hindered by our attire.

A new book out next week, Schools Of Thought, underlines just how important assertiveness is for girls. Written by the teacher David James and Jane Lunnon, the former headmistress of all-girls day school Wimbledon High and now the head at the co-educational Alleyn’s in South London, it draws on the experience of a number of heads in empowering girls.

Clare Wagner, the head of The Henrietta Barnett School, a top-performing all-girls state school in North London, said: ‘There is still a battle to be fought and won. It’s about how girls and women see themselves and carry themselves confidently in mixed environments.

‘We definitely recognise the need in some of our girls to develop more confidence in the way they articulate and present themselves. They are apt to be very polite and to express themselves too gently, and we need to ensure that as women they can be forthright and own the spaces they will be going into.’

Girls need to own the spaces they are in now, too. And it can’t come soon enough, considering news of an alarming rise in sexual assaults on children by children, particularly at secondary school.

One leading expert in the subject says the problem has reached ‘alarming levels’ and there’s been an 81 per cent rise in reported incidents that have taken place on school property.

One of the crimes is sharing indecent pictures of girls. No wonder today’s girls are even more anxious than we were about boys looking up their skirts.

Of course, as everyone suggests, there’s an urgent need for a clampdown on the offensive material to which the under-18s have access these days. But in the meantime, we must put an end to schoolboy leering once and for all by banning the school skirt.

There have been numerous attempts before. Lots of us told stories of how boys had made us feel uncomfortable because they could see our legs. We also suffered harassment outside school from grown men. I suppose we satisfied the fantasy of the willing schoolgirl — pigtails, satchel, short skirt, socks and all. Horrible.

In 2015 there was a campaign to get schools to allow girls to wear trousers. Some schools decided to bend their rules and allow it, but Katia Chornik, who led the campaign on behalf of her daughter, described it as a long and bitter process and the Trousers For All campaign ended in 2022.

So, here goes. I want to reinstate it. No ‘sexy’ skirts to peer up, no legs to ogle, no finely-turned ankles flashed. Take the sex out of school. Then we’ll see girls from five to 18 get fit, confident, assertive and clever — as unhindered as the boys. It’s called equal opportunity.

Joanna Lumley attends the Burberry Winter 2024 show during London Fashion Week

Joanna Lumley attends the Burberry Winter 2024 show during London Fashion Week

SORRY JOANNA, PJs AREN’T FOR LADIES LIKE US 

Now, I don’t mean to be ageist — why would I be at my age — but really, what was Dame Joanna Lumley, 77, thinking when she stepped out to the Burberry show at London Fashion Week wearing her pyjamas? And green sunglasses in the dark? Maybe a 16 year old could get away with it, but Joanna just looked as if she forgot to get dressed.

NAVALNY’S HEROIC WIFE DESERVES OUR SUPPORT

I have never before wanted to weep when a politician has died. But Alexei Navalny was special. I’ve followed his anti-corruption campaign against Putin from the beginning.

Julia Navalny gives a video message

Julia Navalny gives a video message

His courage was unprecedented. I’ve heard him say with determination that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Now he’s gone and it’s left to a good woman to do something.

Yulia Navalnaya has stood by her husband through everything — the attack on his life in 2020 using the lethal nerve agent Novichok and his years in the most cruel Arctic imprisonment. Now she says what many will fear to articulate: ‘Putin killed my husband. I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny. And I call on you to stand by me.’

I can’t imagine how she will do it and survive, but her courage deserves as much support as can be mustered from all of us.

Evil must not triumph.

IT’S CALLED A BLACK-TIE EVENT FOR A REASON 

Some of my favourite men lined up for photos at the Baftas — Cillian Murphy, destined no doubt for an Oscar, Andrew Scott and Ryan Gosling — but, oh, what a mess they looked. Snappy suits, maybe, but not a tie between them. I’m sorry boys, but for a black-tie event, just get out the black ties.

Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott at the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2024 at the Royal Festival Hall

Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott at the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2024 at the Royal Festival Hall

P.S.

As a child, I sat at the breakfast table, gazing at my favourite spread Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Today I’m shocked to find the recumbent lion on the tin I loved so much is dead! I thought he was sleeping and the bees just waking him up. Don’t change it please. The Old Testament derivation ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’ is classy; the rebrand is not!

Jenni Murray sat at the breakfast table, gazing at her favourite spread - Lyle’s Golden Syrup

Jenni Murray sat at the breakfast table, gazing at her favourite spread – Lyle’s Golden Syrup



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